Preparedness Lessons from Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria

Avatar Derrick  |  Updated: August 7, 2020
Preparedness Lessons from Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria

Editor’s Note: This is an updated and revised edition for 2018.

Poor Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria really pummeled the island, further exacerbating their existing problems (poor infrastructure, massive debt, and an out-migration of youth). The Governor of Puerto Rico is warning of a brewing humanitarian crisis. Homes are destroyed. Power is out. Dams have collapsed. Streets are flooded. ‘Apocalyptic’ devastation. It’s a sad situation for an island of generally friendly people. Natural disasters such as this offer the prepper an opportunity to gain real-world observations in today’s time. By watching the disaster strike and the recovery unfold (or not unfold as it may be), the observer can gather valuable information for his/her own preps.

What worked? What didn’t work? How did people respond? What did people need? While the story is far from over, American preppers have not had a learning opportunity of this nature since Hurricane Katrina hit. Having been to Puerto Rico several times and seeing the construction standards and infrastructure firsthand, I can only imagine what the island is like now. It’s truly unfortunate … but what can we, as preppers, learn?

Medical Crisis

Those worrying most on the island are those with ongoing medical problems or those suffering unexpected injuries. Hospitals are always a priority for getting electrical back online, and they have backup generators, but for many parts of the island actually getting to one is nearly impossible. Roads are littered with debris or wiped out entirely. Beyond the actual hospital itself, people requiring insulin are in particular trouble as they lack the electricity needed to keep their insulin cool. Is ice available for keeping it in coolers? Unlikely.

Take Away: Think about your own medical needs or your loved ones’. Then imagine an inability to leave the house (assuming you still have a house) for a few weeks.

  • Do you have/need a backup generator for keeping insulin cool? Maybe a cooler that plugs into a vehicle’s auxiliary power will work.
  • Do you have a backup supply of necessary medications?
  • Do you know the basics of first aid?


If you Google “Puerto Rico cell phone” in the news you’ll find pictures of people congregating around the few functioning cell phone towers or places with wireless internet. Cars are parked along the sides of roads wherever there is reception, people standing in various locations around the area pointing their phones at the tower just trying to get a signal. Many people don’t even have landline phones anymore. The Governor of Puerto Rico, soon after the storm ended, said he wasn’t even sure what other parts of the island looked like yet because they couldn’t communicate. I heard a saying once that the value of information is determined by how hard it is to get. If your son, daughter, or parent lives in Puerto Rico, how much would it be worth to know they are safe?

Take Away: Consider alternative forms of communication to the cell phone. There’s a saying in prepper circles: Three is two, two is one, and one is none. If your only form of communication is a cell phone make another. I’m not saying you need to start training carrier pigeons or even invest in a HAM radio, but you have options. A landline is an option. A CB radio is an option.


Cash is king right now in Puerto Rico.

“The cash economy has reigned in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria decimated much of the U.S. commonwealth last week, leveling the power grid and wireless towers and transporting the island to a time before plastic existed.”

Massive lines at ATMs. Signs outside stores stating “Cash Only.” If you’re like most Americans, myself included, you won’t realize how dependent you are on credit and debit cards for daily transactions until they’re no longer available. Yeah, as a prepper you might have a healthy stack of junk silver you’re waiting to use for bartering once the end of the world hits, but c’mon.

Take Away: Short of the total collapse of the United States—cash works! Electrical power is not a  prerequisite to exchanging cash for goods. Keep some cash on hand.

Getting Finances in Order

This can be said both on the individual level and the government level. Puerto Rico was bankrupt before the hurricane hit. Imagine what shape they’re in now. People were already leaving the island for better opportunities on the mainland and now PR leaders are saying this devastation will only result in even more people leaving the island. The island was struggling to keep the lights on before the grid collapsed to the winds. Now, what are they going to do? What about America and its deficit spending? What shape are we in as a country? Every several months there’s another story about Congress expanding the federal debt ceiling, i.e. kicking the can down the road.

What about you and your financial situation? Do you live below your means? Do you have an emergency fund covering two months’ worth of salary? Do you have the necessary insurance plans to provide coverage should you need it?

Take Away: Give yourself an honest assessment of your financial situation. If you’re like many Americans and living paycheck to paycheck—find a way out. There is plenty of advice out there. Many like Dave Ramsey’s approach, but there are others offering sound advice as well.

Community and Human Ingenuity

Ending on a positive note, all is not bad. It’s encouraging to see signs of people working together after a crisis. For every story of looters stealing goods there are many untold stories of neighbors helping neighbors. In the wake of the storm people came out of their homes and started cleaning up the streets. They didn’t wait for the government. There are pictures of people tapping onto springs in order for people to fill buckets of drinking water. People are bathing in creeks.

Take Away: Nothing brings out the best in people like the worst of times. Prepare not only for yourself, but to help your community.

Want photos of the devastation? Click here.

The author visiting San Juan before Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
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2 Responses to “Preparedness Lessons from Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria”

  1. In my county (in Maryland, where hurricanes are rare), all of the hospitals and the county health department have ham radio equipment, and local hams EXERCISE it at least four times per year. We pull the gear out of the closet, hook it up to antenna cables (installed in the building), and make sure that 1> everything is there, 2> everything works, and 3> people know how to use it. Sometimes, people make mistakes, so they get more training. Maybe a storm knocks down an antenna. So, we get it repaired. Maybe a battery charger has come unplugged, so we restart the charging process. “Preparation” is an ongoing process.

    Ham radio (in its most convenient form, VHF) involves hand-held “walkie-talkie” radios, the signals of which are relayed from automatic repeater stations (something like cell towers). With a repeater, we can communicate tens of miles between users. Without a repeater, only a few miles (depending on terrain). With a radio interface for a computer, we can send text messages and e-mail (if we can reach a gateway). In Puerto Rico, some ham repeaters stayed up while the cell towers went down.

  2. The Red Cross asked the ARRL(american radio relay league) for 50 volunteers to go to Puerto Rico for 3 weeks to set up ham radio communications. It is my understanding that they left for PR a week ago.
    The hams volunteered in less than 1 day to go!!

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