What it was like to live through the hurricane in Puerto Rico: Skokie Theatre owner tells all

What it was like to live through the hurricane in Puerto Rico: Skokie Theatre owner tells all
Wendy Kaplan, owner of the Skokie Theatre, and her husband Scott Richardson. Photo taken before they went to Puerto Rico.

We've all heard about the devastation that took place in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, but it's another thing to live though it.

Wendy Kaplan, owner of the Skokie Theatre, along with her husband Scott Richardson, went to the island for a vacation and were stranded there after the hurricane hit.

In the interview below, which transpired via a couple of emails, Kaplan gives her harrowing account.

What was life like during the actual hurricane? 

Wendy: The hurricane started at 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday, September 20. The loud speaker at the hotel blasted – telling everyone to go down to the lobby. We were met in the lobby by hotel officials who handed out mats, pillows and blankets. 

First, we went into a conference room, but it quickly started raining into the room, and we were ushered into the casino. The casino started leaking quickly after we got there, and we were ushered (partially outside) to a back office room. 

I was huddled under a desk. There were five others in the room with us, two of whom were from the military.  At about noon, we were ushered upstairs. 

We had to change rooms because the room we had been in was facing the ocean and it was no longer safe. We then went to a room on the ninth floor (which we had to walk to – up nine flights of stairs) and it started to rain through the bathroom fixtures.

All in all, we changed rooms four times. We walked up and down nine flights three times that morning.

Did you have electricity afterwards?

Wendy: The hotel was running on generators so we had electricity. We did not have hot water.

In one of your early Facebook posts you said FEMA reps and the military were helpful. Did that prove to be true?

Wendy: Originally, it appeared that the FEMA reps and the military were in our hotel to assist. It became immediately apparent that for some reason, that was not happening.

They were drinking coffee at the coffee bar in the morning – beer at the bar in the evening – living and partying and looking a bit like they were on vacation. 

It wasn’t until much later that we learned that they were caught in the web of having NO instructions. They didn’t know what they were supposed to do – so they didn’t do anything. 

What did you do while you were stranded in Puerto Rico? 

Wendy: We were stuck in Puerto Rico for eight days after the hurricane. We didn’t know what to expect – we started to look around – go outside – survey the damages. We waited and waited and hoped for a connection so we could enlist some help.

We became obsessed with getting a signal out, trying to connect to the mainland through telephone or text or Facebook. At least 75% of the time, we had no connectivity. So we didn’t sleep a lot because any time either of us woke up – we kept checking for a signal.

We walked to town, but nothing was really open.  We were just witnessing the devastation. And it was so bloody hot! There was nowhere outside to hide from the sun. That didn’t help… but neither did rain. So we waited.

In each post you were able to put up on Facebook, you sounded more and more desperate. Can you elaborate? 

Wendy: I started to feel really desperate when it became apparent that we weren’t getting out of Puerto Rico without engaging some extreme means.

We were right next door to the airport – and right next door to that was the air force base with a landing strip. They claimed that there was no working radar at the Puerto Rico airport, but we kept seeing planes coming landing and taking off.

We heard that the (airplane) seats were going to the highest bidders and that there was a violent scene at the airport. That it was hot, hot, hot inside and people were fighting over seats to the mainland. 

Wayne Mell, my partner in MadKap Productions (Skokie Theatre), was my ride or die. He made himself available 24/7 for whenever we could get in touch with him.

He kept changing our flight reservation when the last one would get cancelled. Everything was being cancelled as quickly as the reservations were made. It was so frustrating.

I became scared as I realized what it must be like to be a prisoner. We were in jail. We could not leave. 

At one point, I started to break down emotionally. I started to cry fanatically. I was just feeling terrorized. Yes – we had a bed – we had certain accommodations that one wouldn’t have in prison. But we couldn’t leave.

One day, sewage was emptied into the water just behind the hotel. The stench was so bad that we couldn’t go outside at all. 

 When did you start getting sick? 

Wendy: I started to get sick when I started to not sleep. That was probably Monday night/Tuesday. But I got sick from bad food. So I stopped eating hotel food (which at that point was still provided but not cheap).

They were charging $22.00 for the evening buffet which was getting older and older, and we sensed that they were starting to ration portions. At that point, many of the hotel workers and their families had moved into the hotel.

We still had the FEMA representatives and the military. There were a lot of people trying to eat and drink water and co-exist in an environment that was unhealthy at best. There was never enough water available to really replenish. We started to become dehydrated on the last day. 

The walls of certain floors were caving in.  So it was an ugly, moldy, smelly mess that we were all living in. 

How did you communicate with the outside world?

Wendy: Facebook was magic. I have NO idea why it worked – but it did. Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg!  Every now and then – like Pavlov’s dog – we’d get a phone line out. Why? Who knew? That was what led to our staying awake for hours on end.

You were duped at one point, right? 

Wendy: On Wednesday morning (before we finally left on Thursday), we went down to the lobby. The GM of the hotel called us over and told us to talk to this woman who “represented” the Puerto Rico Tourist Bureau. She had some official looking forms – took down our personal information and told us that we would get on a flight the next day.

At one point, I looked at her – dead on – and I said, “Do NOT tell me that we are getting on a plane tomorrow if that isn’t true,  DO NOT,” I  screamed at her.  She told us not to worry – wrote down two telephone numbers (yeah, like we could call her?).  One was for the PR Tourist Bureau – the other her personal cell phone. She said that we’d hear from her by the end of the day.

At 4:00 p.m., I realized we were duped. We tried to call her – of course, there was no signal. We called the PR Tourist Bureau – they had never heard of her. Yep, duped.

How did you finally get out?

Wendy: We got in touch with the Assistant GM of the hotel – who up until now had been very nice.  A real “gem.” We told her of our plight with this woman and she promised to look into it at 6:00 o'clock the following morning. So – at 7:30 that morning (Thursday – 9/28), we went downstairs and found the Assistant GM in the elevator. She turned to us and said, “Why are you still here!?”

I decided to pull the raging lunatic (which in some sense, I'd become) act and get hysterical in the lobby. At some point, the manager of hotel security came over to me and told me that I really had to move out of the lobby.

I said, “No, I’m staying right here until I get out of Puerto Rico.” Not many minutes later the General Manager came over to us, asked us if our bags were packed.

We said yes and he said go get them-- so we did.

We came downstairs and we were met by a white van – no writing on it. I turned to the GM and said, “Promise me that if we don’t get on a plane, we won’t lose our room – promise me.”

I was terrified of being stranded. We got into the van with our bags. There was another couple in the van who were not too friendly. I asked where we were going – the driver said “to the airport.”

(At this point, I should mention that the day before, we were offered the option of going to the port and getting on a slow boat to Ft. Lauderdale.  The option included being in a stateroom with two strangers--four to a room, and making stops along the way back to Florida. We would have gotten to the mainland on Oct. 3 if all went well.  I couldn’t handle the tight quarters for five days with two strangers and no security.  So we opted out of that plan. We did find out later that that boat did not leave until Friday, September 29, at which point we were already home.)

We were taken to “Departures” at the airport, but the driver was told to drive around back, where there was a courtyard. No one really seemed to know what was going on, but I saw someone I recognized from the hotel in a line so I got in it. After about half an hour, I was at the front and I saw that people were showing their IDs.

I went and got Scott’s ID. When I got to the front of the line, I was told that our names were not on their list. Of course, they weren’t – remember – we were duped. The woman from the PR Tourist Bureau really wasn’t. So I asked if we could join the list. The lady said, “Yeah – but no guarantees – this is a waiting list for stand-by.”

I went back outside, found Scott and continued to sit in the sun, for at least an hour.  At that point, someone came out with a clipboard and read names. Finally, the crowd thinned out and only included a few of us from our hotel. The ones that were duped. And then our names were called.

More sun, more heat, more lack of water – more time. As we get to the front of that line – about an hour later – we are told that we have to decide whether to send our luggage or not – knowing that we might not get on the plane.

We figured – what the hell – bye luggage. So we go through security, get to the gate and there is a couple in front of us on line.  The airline representative turns to the couple and says, “You already have a confirmed flight in an hour – step aside – NEXT.”

We were the last people to get on the flight. Meanwhile, I’m suffering from dehydration. I’m keeling over. I can’t stand up. I’m desperate for water and there isn’t any. So I take my seat, and Scott takes his, but we are not seated together.

The young woman next to me is eating and drinking. I finally can’t stand it and I ask her for a sip of water. I carefully only take one sip.

After a few minutes, I get up and go to the stewardess and ask for water.  She looks at me (I’m a mess) and she rolls her eyes and gives me water.  The plane sat on the tarmac for about an hour – again – hot – scary (was it going to take off?).

We finally take off.  As soon as we’re up in the air, I faint. Literally. Neither of the women on either side of me knew that I had fainted.  At some point, Scott walked down the aisle to find me and nudged me awake. Awake from a faint.

The lady next to me realized that I needed help and she took me under her wing… gave me some sugar-free cookies – got me more water – she was wonderful.

When we reached home – in the house – in my room, my body completely broke down from dehydration. It took me days to recover my strength.

What would you tell Donald Trump about your experience? 

Wendy: Frankly, I don’t ever trust myself to be in that man’s presence. I am much more prone to panic attacks now. I cannot stand his evil face.

I asked the kind lady who sat next to me on the plane (who was from Puerto Rico) what she would like people to know. She said that she wants Trump to know that Puerto Rico is a part of the United States and that he is committing the worst type of genocide.  There are people dying in the mountains and in the southern parts of the island.  She said that relatives are walking over their dead relatives – it’s gross and awful and the United States should do something.

On Friday, the Skokie Theatre is holding a benefit for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. For more information, call the Skokie Theatre: 847-677-7761.

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