In the Wake of Hurricane Maria, Lions Work to Lift the Island From the Rubble.

Story and Photography by Ryan T. Bell

On the windblown island of Puerto Rico, it is rare to see palm trees standing perpendicular to the ground. Their trunks arc across the sky like fireworks igniting into flurries of palm fronds. They’ve adapted over millennia to bend and sway in the breeze. But nature will test the limit of how far something can bend before it breaks.

With Hurricane Maria bearing down on Puerto Rico, a number of thoughts were on Lion Miriam Vazquez’s mind. As executive director of the Lions Eye Bank in San Juan, she knew the clinic’s supply of corneas needed to be packed on ice and delivered to a hospital equipped with backup power generators. The Lions Eye Bank had only a small generator and if Hurricane Maria proved to be as powerful as the weather report predicted, it couldn’t be relied on for a prolonged power outage. The delicate eye tissue, generous gifts from organ donors, needed to be kept refrigerated at a temperature between 34 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit.

There was also the checklist of pre-disaster errands that are routine for people living in the Bermuda Triangle. Fill cars with gas. Withdraw money from the ATM. Stock up on dry goods, water, and batteries at the grocery store. Storm proof homes and apartments by securing flower pots and loose patio furniture, latching the shudders, and stuffing towels around leaky windows and door seams.

All the while, Vazquez kept thinking about her daughter, Maria, who was eight months pregnant. Had she made the right decision to stay in Puerto Rico? They had extended family in Chicago, Illinois, who had invited her to ride out the storm from the safety of the mainland. But Maria doubted her health insurance would cover the bill if she went into labor in a hospital located off the island. She could stare down a natural disaster, but the possibility of amassing considerable financial debt wasn’t worth the risk.

Knowing her mother would worry, Maria offered that Vasquez and her husband could stay with them the night of the storm. “That way you can be relaxed knowing that I’m okay,” she said. Vazquez and her husband packed a bag and enacted a scene being played out in homes across Puerto Rico, as family and friends came together to cook dinner, watch the weather report, and try to get some sleep.

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