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Hurricanes and Wildfires: What I Learned From My Trips to California and Puerto Rico

Hurricanes and Wildfires: What I Learned From My Trips to California and Puerto Rico

Over the past few months, I've had the unique experience of traveling to two destinations that have been devastated by natural disasters. I flew down to Puerto Rico just after Hurricane Maria hit, and a few weeks later, I visited the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma as the wildfires were beginning. Despite the tragedies, in each place I saw the support and kindness of communities coming together to help each other. It was eye-opening to say the least.

Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria

My parents and several other family members live in Puerto Rico.  You may have seen the destruction on the news, but for several days after the hurricane, I had no way to contact them. I worried and stressed every day not knowing if they were all right. Once flights were up and running again, I booked the first plane ticket to San Juan I could get my hands on. After many canceled flights, I finally made it there. At the airport, I immediately rented a car with a full tank of gas and chose the option to return it on empty.

 As soon as we landed, I could see the devastation caused by the hurricane. It was worse than I imagined. Everything looked burnt, as if a bomb had gone off. With the trees and vegetation gone, you could see for miles. Puerto Rico looked like it had been through a war. My first stop was Coamo where my parents live. Their home was severely damaged. The hurricane had taken out two huge trees by the roots. My mother had a breakdown. My father looked more tired than I’d ever seen him. It took him a few moments to realize that it was actually me standing in front of him and not a mirage. It was one of the saddest and most relieved moments of my life - I was torn apart by the damage they’d suffered but so happy that they were alive. But their home had no water or electricity - and they wouldn't get it back until November 20th. My son quit his job to fly to Puerto Rico to help them out. Several of my friends lost their homes and businesses entirely, and some of them lost family members.

But during my visit, I felt there was still hope in Puerto Rico. Everyone in the community was so supportive and caring. I was surprised to see how many neighbors we had. I was also surprised - though perhaps I shouldn’t have been - about how the government dealt with the situation there. They acted as if they didn't care about Puerto Rican residents, and they really let their people down. My family still doesn’t have the generator we ordered (and paid for) four weeks ago because the government is holding it in San Juan. They’ve made it impossible for us to receive it. But I still feel hopeful in spite of all that because of Puerto Rico’s strong community ties. The people are helping each other. The people have stayed and fought to bring everything back. Puerto Rico will be better because of its people. Not the government. After checking on my parents and making sure they were safe, my other goals were to help out the towns of Coamo and Rincon. Coamo in particular is often forgotten because it's not a tourist town. I wanted to help out the people there as well as the animals - like those at Misfits Pet Orphanage and all of the stray dogs that were left abandoned during the hurricane. 

California Wine Country During the Wildfires

Very shortly after my trip down to Puerto Rico, I was headed to Santa Rosa, California. The goal of my trip was to visit lots of great vegan wineries and vineyards to find partners for our wine club and website. The day after I arrived, however, the wildfires began. Being so close to the source, I gained some insight into how suddenly it all started. One of the reasons these fires were such a shocking and tragic event is because there was just no warning at all. People woke up in the morning to flames outside their windows with only seconds to escape. Even though I was in Santa Rosa when they began and not in the immediate vicinity of the fires, they told us to stay inside to avoid smoke inhalation.

Despite the surprise and destruction of it all, the vineyard owners came together in this time of crisis - they helped each other quickly pick grapes in order to save as much of their harvest as possible. They acted as one community, and they opened their homes to one another. Whole Foods gave out free cases of bottled water. The emergency response team was incredibly efficient. Though understandably upset, people were grateful to the response teams and their surrounding communities. Many of the wineries were left untouched, however, and as we toured the Napa and Sonoma regions, we saw the smoke but never experienced any danger. Sure, some of the wineries and vineyards we’d planned to visit were closed, and I was unable to meet with some of the owners. But lots of them were closed solely because they were out helping others! And the response teams did a great job confining the fires in the face of high winds. The media skipped over all of these good things and played up the negative. And that discourages wine tourism at a time when these businesses need it the most. 

Lessons Learned

Everywhere I looked in both Puerto Rico and California, people were offering shelter, food, water, and transportation to others. People were raising money, or donating portions of their profits to help relief efforts. These communities are working hard to get ready for tourists again. Many residents have lost their jobs because of these disasters. Both of these regions need our tourism dollars right now.

I want to encourage people to travel to these places because they still have so much beauty to offer. In Puerto Rico, the vegetation is growing back in such a vibrant green color that it’s almost like the soil was cleansed by the storm. Flowers, plants, and produce are all coming back fast and strong. I’ve been to Puerto Rico three times since the hurricane, and every time I see how quickly things are opening back up - like the weekly farmer’s market and art walk in Rincon. The beaches are still there. In California, the vineyards are still there and the scenery is still stunning. Restaurants are open. Music events are happening. Puerto Rico and California are ready for tourists.

Visiting these two places shortly after such tragic disasters was a humbling yet eye-opening experience. I learned that they are each made up of strong, supportive communities who are there for each other when things get tough. And we should be there for them too. For updates on more of what's going on behind the scenes at Vegan Wines, stay in touch! Sign up for our newsletter above↑