Vermont family recalls terror of riding out hurricanes
PITTSFORD — After surviving two of the worst hurricanes in recent memory, enduring a move of nearly 2,000 miles and contending with life in a new part of the world, the Blas family of Pittsford is getting back on their feet thanks to their community, family, friends and a 2005 Toyota Camry.
“It is incredible, the liberty this vehicle gave us,” Peter Blas said. “I will never forget about this thing.”
To hear their story on the anniversary of Hurricanes Irma and Maria is to understand why.
Peter Blas, 61, is from New York City but was raised in Puerto Rico. His wife, Heather, 33, moved to Puerto Rico at the age of 12 from Middlebury, Vt. A year ago, they and their daughters Natalia, 12, and Sofia, 5, were living not far from Puerto Rico on the Caribbean island of Saint Thomas. At their home in Charlotte Amalie, the capital city of the U.S. Virgin Islands, strong tropical storms were a fact of life.
“The houses are made of concrete,” Peter said. “You have to be prepared for these.”
In September 2017, the Blas family knew about Hurricane Irma a week before it made landfall. Heather’s father, an atmospheric researcher at NASA, had observed the intensity of the storm and its unique trajectory towards the Leeward Islands. After seven years living on Saint Thomas, Heather knew that most storms would miss them.
“You would just see them pass by,” she said. “You never expect one to come right at you.”
But they recognized that Irma was different when it made landfall on Dominica, an island about 300 miles southeast of Saint Thomas, with 160-mph winds. Irma was hitting the Leeward Islands dead-on and now the Blases needed to take shelter on a speck of land that was just 32 square miles. The tallest mountain is just 700 feet high. When they heard Irma had moved up to Saint Martin and destroyed even the strongest buildings, they knew they were in trouble.
“There was nothing to stop this thing,” Peter said.
The family moved to a hotel within walking distance of their home and took a room on the bottom floor, knowing they would be more protected from the wind. The room had a small kitchen and the girls could enjoy the pool.
Heather remembers the moment they had to take shelter.
“It was about 2 p.m. and I was trying to make a whole batch of pancakes, but then I heard a bunch of noise so I couldn’t focus,” she said.
For nine hours, Irma mauled tiny Saint Thomas with 180-mph winds and gusts up to 200 mph. The wind scoured paint off of shutters, tore roofs off buildings and skewered telephone poles through buildings. As the storm advanced over them, they had to scream to each other to be heard over the roar. They could hear the woman next door yelling for help. When the front door began to bend inward, they took shelter in the bathroom. When the ceiling began to leak and part of it fell into the bathtub, they moved chairs and supplies into the hall. They stayed there for four hours waiting for the storm to pass.
When they emerged from the room, Heather and Peter saw the full devastation Irma left behind. Buildings and trees were blown away. Wrecked ships and boats clogged the harbor.
The normally green hillsides around Charlotte Amalie had been stripped of all vegetation and were a burnt brown.
The storm had departed, but the trouble was just beginning. Clean water and food were scarce. The hospital was badly damaged from flooding, and Peter still required a treatment for a hernia he had suffered before Irma. Gas stations and grocery stores were broken into and looted of food and supplies.
Three days later, the family returned to their home and found it remarkably intact. The power was out, but there was no flooding inside.
When cell service returned, Heather called her father in Pittsford, Vt.
“The first thing I wanted to do was let someone know we were safe,” she said.
She also reached out to her sister in Bridport, who had contacts with ships in nearby Puerto Rico who were helping evacuate survivors with sailboats.
On Sept. 11, the Blas family boarded a catamaran called the East Wind and sailed the 40 miles to Puerto Rico.
They arrived in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, with only a few possessions — a few changes of clothes, important documents, some of the girls’ favorite toys, and as much food as they could carry. Peter instructed his co-workers to take what they needed and to throw the rest away.
Friends met them in the harbor and offered support. One reached out via Facebook with an incredible offer: A couple from Wisconsin had volunteered their vacation rental for them to stay in.
“It was amazing,” Heather said. “I had never met these people.”
For the time being, they had a place to rest and plan their next move.
‘IRMA WAS BAD, THIS WAS WORSE’
Peter and Heather’s daughters still hadn’t started school, Peter still required medical attention and they were recently uprooted from their home. Exactly two weeks later, Hurricane Maria arrived.
In preparation, a friend rented a car for the family and they drove to the southwest corner of Puerto Rico to the city of Cabo Rojo, where they expected they would be more sheltered.
“We wanted to do anything to not be in the eye of the storm,” Heather said.
They found a guesthouse at a hotel that had a generator and food.
The second massive storm of 2017 made landfall Sept. 20 as a Category 4 hurricane. The eye of Hurricane Maria was 32 miles across and winds gusted up to 150 miles per hour.
“If Irma was bad, this was worse,” Peter said.
The family rode out the storm for 22 hours inside the guesthouse. Again, the roof began to leak and the wind rose to deafening volumes. The heater was ripped off the roof, but remarkably, nothing hit the car.
Again they were faced with cleaning up and moving on, but after two direct hits Puerto Rico was staggered.
One month after Hurricane Maria, all hospitals were open, but most were on backup generators. About half of sewage treatment plants on the island were still not functioning.
Desperation set in as people struggled to find food, water and basic supplies. Grocery stores were closely guarded and food was rationed. In the aftermath of the storm, the Blas family had just four gallons of drinking water.
“I was rationing what we were drinking,” Heather said.
Puerto Rico suffered massive flooding and infrastructure damage. The electrical grid was effectively destroyed, leaving the island’s 3.4 million residents in the dark. Only 400 miles of the island’s roads were passable and the Blases had to wait a week until the roads were clear enough to drive.
When they returned to the car rental in hopes of getting a replacement with a full tank of gas, they learned theirs was the only car in the rental fleet that survived the storm. Debit or credit cards were useless without power. They spent the last of their cash — $100 — on 15 gallons of gas.
When they found cell service, Heather’s phone rang; it was her father.
“He said, ‘You’re coming to Vermont. I’m going to try and get you out of there as soon as we can,’” Peter said.
On Oct. 18, they left an island devastated by the deadliest hurricane in Puerto Rican history.
‘FOCUSED ON HEALING’
The Blases have continued to face challenges since arriving in Vermont, however they have not had to face all of them alone.
Four days after an operation on his hernia, Peter collapsed from a blood clot in his lungs and was hospitalized. The pastor of the local Methodist church traveled with Heather to Burlington to visit Peter. She spent the night in the hospital with Heather and Sofia.
Peter continues to suffer from panic attacks and is unable to work full-time. Instead, he and Heather work together cleaning some of the local churches in the Rutland area.
“We found it’s the best work for us because it’s something we can do together and it needs to be done,” Heather said. “They don’t care if he finishes or if I finish it. So if he he’s not feeling well, he can sit down and I can take over. Our family can stay together. We’re focused on healing.”
The family has received assistance from other unexpected sources. After plans to resettle more Syrian refugees in the Rutland area failed to materialize, the church repurposed a stockpile of food, clothes and furniture to fill the Blases new apartment in Pittsford. A woman arrived in a pickup truck towing a trailer, both filled with furniture. More volunteers arrived with bags of warm winter clothes and boots.
While it wasn’t Heather’s first Vermont winter, the family got to experience shoveling, laying down gravel and preventing ice buildup. The girls got to build their first snowmen.
They’ve been delighted by the slower pace of life in a rural state. Heather and Peter described in amazement neighbors leaving their cars or houses unlocked or a farm stand run on the honor system.
“We’re very impressed,” Heather said.
And then there’s the car.
The Blas family’s latest break came on Aug. 24 in the form of a new-to-them car from Good News Garage in Burlington. The silver Toyota Camry was donated by a generous Vermonter and will now help the Blas family move onward and upward while they start a new life in the Green Mountain State. Peter and Heather no longer have to borrow a car from a family member to get to a work and Sofia and Natalia can now participate in afterschool programs.
Last Friday, when they sat down for an interview with the Reporter, was close to a year after they started their journey.
Today, Sofia and Natalia attend Lothrop Elementary and their parents say they look forward to school every day. At home, sneakers are piled on a mat next to the door; the girls’ artwork hangs on the fridge. It is a home like any other.
“I have never imagined I would live in such a place,” Peter said. “I will never forget about the humanity I have seen here. People won’t let you struggle.”
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