Hurricane Maria started out as a Category 2 storm as it barrelled across the Caribbean. But by the time Temple University theater professor Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon reached her daughter via cellphone on the island of St. Croix, the storm had strengthened to a Category 5.
Using a radar app on her iPad, Williams-Witherspoon watched in horror as the storm unfolded, packing 147-mph winds.
As she talked to her daughter, she sensed her mood had became as dark as the storm.
“She said, ‘Mom if I don’t make it out of here, I just want you to know I love you very much.’ And I said ‘Stop! Do not do that!’ And I just started quoting Bible verses. They just upchucked out of me,” Williams-Witherspoon said.
Her daughter, Essence Williams, is a nurse specializing in midwifery. On Sept. 17, two days before the storm hit, Williams arrived in St. Croix where she planned to do her clinicals at the island’s hospital.
“The power went out on Monday, and I was unable to speak to her,” Williams-Witherspoon said. “So, by Tuesday, I was crazy. I couldn’t get to my baby.”
Now, more than a week later, Williams is still stuck with limited access to power and water in the town of Christiansted, where she and fiance Juan Ramos, a history teacher in New York, had rented a condo. The first few days, they were under a complete curfew and not allowed to go out. Because of price gouging, a gallon of water can cost as much as $15. And the couple relies on strangers’ generators to charge their cell phones, which can take up to five hours.
What’s more, Ramos is diabetic and doesn’t have access to his insulin.
“There’s so much I’m nervous about,” Williams-Witherspoon said. “We have to have a better way of dealing with this phenomenon, especially when U.S. citizens are involved.”
Last weekend, Williams-Witherspoon and a group of her Temple colleagues sat down at their computers and reached out to government and state officials, including the U.S. State Department — to no avail.
“Because it’s a U.S. territory, the State Department can’t get involved,” Williams-Witherspoon explained. “FEMA only deals with property damage and the Red Cross only deals with medicine. It’s trying to find out who deals with such a problem that we have.”
Williams-Witherspoon was told it could be weeks before commercial airlines resume their flights on and off the island. In the meantime, she is praying her daughter and future son-in-law will be able to get on a military flight home.
“I just want them back on the mainland,” she said.
UPDATE: Williams-Witherspoon reports that her daughter Essence Williams made it on the first mercy flight evacuation headed for Florida.