For Alba Colon, desperation and worry eased by faith in humanity after Hurricane Maria

Courtesy of Alba Colon

Alba Colon, center, welcomed her mother, Alba Rodriguez, left, and niece, Vanessa Manzano, to her Michigan home after Hurricane Maria.

It took Alba Colon, then Chevrolet's program manager for the NASCAR Cup Series, a week to learn her family was safe after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in mid-September. But her desperation and worry didn't end even after she learned her mother, sibling, in-laws, aunts and uncles had survived the devastating hurricane. The Spain native who grew up in Puerto Rico still worried about getting her family to the United States. Now, as she prepares for her first Daytona 500 with Hendrick Motorsports, Colon shares her ordeal.

When Hurricane Maria cut a path of destruction across Puerto Rico, I was Chevrolet's program manager for the NASCAR Cup effort and we were at the beginning of our playoffs. For a week, I got very little sleep as I tried desperately to find my family while not missing a beat with my racing duties.

With the beginning of the 2018 NASCAR season, I know my family is safe. I am starting a new job -- director of competition systems for Hendrick Motorsports -- but the emotions of last September's ordeal are still very vivid to me as Puerto Rico continues to recover from that horrible storm.

Today, my family has electricity and water, but it took several months for them to get both. It was on and off for a while, and their water service returned long before their electricity was restored. The prices on many things have increased, but thankfully, everyone in my family is doing well.

The storm cut the island in half. My 76-year-old mother, my sister and her family live in Sabana Grande, which is on the island's west coast. My brother and his family live in a town south of them. They suffered water damage to their homes, so a couple of things were lost, but nothing major. The houses are built of blocks and cement to withstand storms and hurricanes because you always have them. It's the normal thing.

That's why I don't think anybody expected Maria to be so bad. Hurricane Irma had hit two weeks earlier and my mother lost electricity for a few days, but it didn't do too much damage. Normally, the storms come north and they go south. No one expected one to come through the middle of the island.

Courtesy Alba Colon

Carving pumpkins was a first for Vanessa Manzano, left, and Alba Rodriguez when they came to Michigan from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

That was one of the things that really scared me about my mom, because she didn't take this hurricane seriously. I had talked with my mother on the Tuesday night before the storm hit on Wednesday and she had told me she was going to ride it out by herself, even though my sister lived just two streets away. She told me not to worry -- nothing was going to happen. She ended up staying with my sister-in-law because my brother was in Washington D.C., for a corporate meeting.

I woke up at 4 a.m. that Wednesday [Sept. 20] and wanted to call her, but I didn't because I didn't want to wake her. I talked with a friend in San Juan at 5 a.m. and he told me he had started to feel the winds. That was when our conversation got cut off. I waited until 8 a.m. to call my mother, but, of course, by then there was no communication.

Once the storm passed and the news reports started, my desperation set in. I couldn't find them and I didn't hear anything from them. I started calling people and I could not reach anybody.

We were told that if you were looking for someone, call this special 1-800 number. I kept calling it and nothing happened. Many of the people I went to high school with are in the United States and they put a group together on WhatsApp [a freeware and cross-platform instant messaging and voice over IP service]. That is how I started communicating, just trying to learn what was occurring on that side of the island.

That group from high school was amazing. We were all in the same boat, because we were all looking for our parents, our families. Claro is a phone service provider in Puerto Rico, like Verizon here, and it was working in certain spots. Some people started trying to find their relatives that way.

I kept working [at my job] through all of this, but I was desperate to find them. Social media helped everybody. I used Twitter and Facebook. I knew no one died in the town where my family lived, but where were they? I started sending texts to my mother every night, telling her we were looking for her and not to worry. It was like [writing] a diary to her, but she never saw them until she made it to the United States. One hundred and seventy people from Puerto Rico work at General Motors, and we were all sending messages to one another, telling what relative had been found.

I started feeling guilty when I would eat a hot meal because I wondered if people back home had one. When I would take a warm shower, I knew they didn't have one. I was sleeping in air conditioning and I knew they were sweating. I started feeling guilty because I had the basics of life and they didn't. When I wasn't working, my mind was always on them.

Once the storm passed and the news reports started, my desperation set in. I couldn't find them and I didn't hear anything from them. I started calling people and I could not reach anybody.
Alba Colon

When my brother left for Washington, the storm wasn't supposed to hit the island. By the time he realized the seriousness of the hurricane, he couldn't return because all of the flights had been canceled. It was slightly more than two weeks before he could get home.

During this time, I learned to have a lot of patience and to rely on others. One thing that really helped me was the moral support from so many people. The NASCAR community was amazing. Everyone asked what they could do to help.

While trying to get my brother back to Puerto Rico, we learned about satellite phones. I asked him to take one with him. One day I received a telephone call from a number I didn't know and I was asked my identity. Then the call was lost. I kept trying to call back the number, but without any luck.

The next day, exactly a week after I last talked with my mother, I received a call from that same number. It was my mom's voice and she started crying. She kept saying, "Are you coming here? You're coming here." I told her I couldn't get there. It was just a few seconds and then the call ended. I later learned it was my mom's neighbor and she had to go to a specific place to get a signal. People weren't leaving their phones on very long because they had no way to charge them.

During all of this, we were also desperately trying to figure a way to get them out of Puerto Rico or how to get to them. The humanity shown during this time was amazing. Somebody saw something I posted on Facebook and went to my mother's house, but by then she was already with my sister.

The kids later told me it was getting unbearable to sleep because it was so hot. My niece and nephew told me they slept on the floor in the garage because it was cool. My family told me they would wake up at 1 a.m. to get in line at the gas station, which opened at 6 a.m., just to get $20 worth of gas. My sister said she spent her whole day between the gas station and a restaurant that opened. She said it was the new normal. You get used to it and you adapt. The good thing was, people learned to communicate with one another again because they had no choice.

Two-and-a-half weeks after the storm, I finally saw my mother. She and my 17-year-old niece, Vanessa Manzano, finally got a flight out of Puerto Rico. The day I got Mom was the same day my brother was able to get back to the island. The first meal my niece had, she ate a lot of food. We went to a barbecue place in Michigan because she wanted ribs. That's when I learned they had good food for three or four days after the storm hit because Mom had a gas stove and everybody started cooking the food they had before it was ruined. Everyone was sharing food.

The first thing my mother wanted to do when she got to Michigan was sleep. They also wanted to get their hair done -- the little pleasures of life. The big deal for me was to hug my mother and my niece when they arrived. There are stories that I don't even know yet, because when they got here I just wanted to spend time with them. My sister told me that one day we would sit and talk and she would tell me everything that happened. I didn't want to waste any time on that when they were here. I just wanted to make sure they had everything they needed. My niece stayed a month before she returned for school. My mother stayed three months between Michigan and Florida before returning to Puerto Rico. We are now talking about bringing her back.

I was scheduled to travel to Puerto Rico the weekend after the storm on a recruiting trip for General Motors. We were to bring 14 students from the University of Puerto Rico to GM for job interviews. We started contacting them via social media to let them know they still had their interviews when they could get there. It took us until November to be able to get the students to GM for their interviews. When I went to Puerto Rico with four other people in November, it was heartbreaking. When we flew into San Juan, we saw a lot of houses with blue tarps on the damaged roofs. Everyone there now talks about things in the vernacular of "before Maria" and "after Maria."

One thing I learned during all of this was that I couldn't do it by myself. I needed to let other people help me. I learned about humanity. It reshuffled my priorities in life, taught me that family is No. 1 and you need to do the things that make you happy. Sometimes you forget that family is No. 1 because of the jobs we have. It scared me to think I might not have my family.

We also learned that when there's a storm, you had better be ready. But at the end of the day, it was about amazing humanity, and we need to continue that.

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