It was a before-and-after kind of event: Hurricane María. Rubén Huertas, DTM, president of San Juan’s Puerto Rico Toastmasters club now considers September 21, 2017, as his new birth date. It was the day after María hit with a merciless fury that destroyed all 78 towns that comprise the Caribbean island. As has been widely reported on the news, María hit our beautiful island as a Category 4 hurricane. It tested our resiliency. It is still testing many of us, and will for quite some time.
The days before María, Rubén and I prepared our apartment. Hurricane Irma had hit a week earlier. Irma was the jab, María, the knock out.
We love our apartment. It is secluded and lovely, hidden in the metropolitan forest. It is full of the sounds of coqui frogs, owls and other birds. In the distance, we see the Old San Juan skyline and lots of cruise ships. It inspires us to write stories and Toastmasters speeches.
The first signs of Maria’s fury were winds that hit at 1:30 a.m., sounding like a chainsaw cutting through steel. A window blew out and then rain water took over the entire apartment, room by room. Hurricane María didn’t even make landfall until 10 hours later, but its effects were already causing harm. I asked Rubén if we were prepared to survive this. Did we really know how to protect ourselves and make good decisions?
At that moment, I felt the inadequacy of our survival plan. As a Toastmaster, how many times do you ask yourself, Am I really prepared to present this speech? Does it need a better structure? Am I really prepared to help others as a mentor? Do I have the courage to lead my work team or my Toastmasters colleagues as an officer of the club? We need to be prepared for every opportunity and often we are not. I learned some very useful lessons from Hurricane María:
Listen actively and act immediately. I judged Rubén because I didn’t feel prepared. He was desperately trying to fix things in the midst of the hurricane, and what I needed to do was help, not judge.
Improvise, if you must, to get the job done. Each room in our apartment had a different problem and we applied different strategies. After the first window blew out, Rubén and I sealed the opening with an inflatable mattress secured with a heavy cabinet. We even cut up Rubén’s plastic real estate “For Sale” signs to seal other blown window openings from the pounding rain. Our improvisation saved our home.
Take care of others. We experienced the worst hurricane in almost a century in the Atlantic Ocean, but we also received the greatest love. We witnessed many unforgettable acts of kindness. Residents put out fires and assisted bedridden and elderly neighbors. There was no electricity, no water, no fuel and no access to food after supermarket shelves were emptied by hundreds of people who waited in long lines. As of the end of October, things are slowly getting better. We still need a lot of help. However, we are relearning how to be human again in a “true community” environment.
It took us a while to get together with our fellow Toastmasters, but on October 18, we held our first post-hurricane meeting. Although it was difficult to travel, members showed up for what was themed “Puerto Rico Se Levanta” (We Rise). It was a display of pure gratitude and joy. We all experienced losses and yet came through stronger than ever. Toastmasters served as an oasis of hope. I am deeply touched by the indomitable spirit of our people. We have a long way to go, but we remain strong and more united than ever.
One of the particularities of leadership is that it is best displayed during trying times. To awaken the latent powers that come with leadership one often needs a struggle, a challenge. Our challenge was María. We thank Toastmasters International for giving us a space where we can grow, heal and pursue our dreams. We are forever grateful. WE RISE.
Elbia Quiñones, DTM secretary of the Puerto Rico Toastmasters Club, is a certified coach and author of five books.