Nine Tuolumne County residents were at Jobos Beach on the coast of northwest Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria, the strongest storm to hit the Caribbean island in 85 years, slammed into the U.S. territory with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and gusts up to 200 mph.

They hunkered down in their vacation rental, sat through the storm’s advance, then through the eye of the massive storm, and endured its devastating exit, within sight of an “angry, churning ocean.”

Less sturdy structures nearby were destroyed, including the home of a maintenance man who wept with them when he learned his home and belongings were gone.

“We were 200 yards away from the beach before the storm, and about 100 yards from the beach during the eye of the storm,” said Clayton Smock, 30, of Twain Harte.

They were confident the storm surge wouldn’t reach them, but it was “a terrifying-looking ocean,” Smock said.

He said the waves were huge.

“The chaos was noticeable, they weren’t rolling in like normal sets. They were coming in disorganized. It looked like a churning ocean of 40-foot waves.”

Completely destroyed

In their immediate neighborhood, storm surge waters reached bars and restaurants that were a couple blocks from them, “and they were completely destroyed by the winds and storm surge,” Smock said.

All nine friends are OK, Smock said. Nobody was injured or became ill. The friends arrived back home in the Mother Lode in recent days.

Smock, who works at Pinecrest Lake Resort, said the trip was in part to celebrate his 30th birthday.

“We went there because it's a U.S. territory and passports are not required,” Smock said.

Their friends, the Hartles, who run Alicia's Sugar Shack, own property there and are frequent visitors.

Some parts of Puerto Rico were still reeling from Hurricane Irma, which did not hit Puerto Rico directly, Smock said. Irma’s eye passed just north of Puerto Rico 10 days before, the evening of Sept. 6, as a Category 5 storm with 185 mph winds.

They arrived on Sept. 16. On Sunday Sept. 17 they heard about Maria. It was a tropical storm, but it was expected to pick up and head their direction.

They spent their first day in the town of Jobos Beach, on the northwest shore, at the beach and eating out, Smock said.

Sunday they went stand-up paddle boarding, and on Monday, Smock’s birthday, they went to waterfalls in Rincón.

They stayed close to their base at Jobos Beach. They could tell people were getting ready. Nobody seemed panicked at that point. It wasn't a desperate scramble, but boards were going up on windows, Smock said. The friends were nervous.

“We first had hurricane conditions Wednesday morning, very early at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.,” Smock said. “The peak of the storm was definitely night and day Wednesday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. was the hardest, then three hours in the eye it was fine, from 4 p.m. to about 8 or 9 it was very intense.”

They lost all communications, including cell phones, land lines, internet and AM and FM radio reception, early Wednesday. The went outside for the eye of the storm but they stayed inside before and after.

“We were completely locked in,” Smock said. “For us it was more intense before the eye, the way the house was situated, because the winds reversed when the eye passed over.’

Smock said it was immediately apparent how bad the storm damage was.

“Every tree you could see was broken in half, buildings immediately around us were missing roofs and portions of roof, an entire power pole-streetlight was in our yard. Four out of every five electricity-telephone poles were down, even some concrete power poles came down. You knew it was the entire island,” he said.

They had stocked up in Jobos Beach with food and water, but they gave most of it away because they knew they had to get San Juan to get home. Their travel plans were in limbo.

The owner of the property where they stayed siphoned gas from his boat to their rented Jeep, Smock said. There were hundreds and hundreds of people standing in long lines waiting with gas cans to buy gas.

“You had to have cash, nobody could take cards,” said Christine Reber, one of the Twain Harte travelers. “Jobos was like a two-hour drive to get to San Juan. Finding lodging and anything else was difficult to say the least.”

In San Juan

They left on Saturday, Sept. 22, to go to San Juan, capital of the island of 3.4 million people.

“An entirely different story,” Smock said. “It seems even more desperate. There's a 6 p.m. curfew on the streets in San Juan. The gas shortage is probably the most obvious humanitarian issue, because everybody is prepared to run generators to make electricity and there wasn't any gas on the whole island.”

People were trying to get bottled water. The Twain Harte friends couldn’t find lodging easily, but they had multiple rental cars so they were able to scout around.

By Sunday night they were four days after the storm, restaurants were opening and they had the means to eat and find lodging, but a lot of locals did not.

“Our hotel had two restaurants and we were able to go there, but they closed because they ran out of diesel,” Reber said. “Then they got diesel back and they were up and running again. Restaurants were opening and closing because they were running out of supplies. We would go to Walgreens and Rite Aid and most of the shelves were empty. Especially things like water, canned goods, were getting scarce.”

There were only a handful of ATM machines working, she said. If you didn’t have cash you were out of luck.

“You get a sense of desperation there,” Smock said. “There's a huge police presence with full-on riot gear, fully automatic assault rifles on the street. The curfew is enforced each night. It’s eerie quiet on the streets. The spare tire got stolen off the rental Jeep one of the last nights we were there.”

Pleas to help Puerto Rico

Christine and Charley Reber, with Allstar Construction & Pest Management in Twain Harte, sent an emotional message to The Union Democrat this past weekend.

“We are finally home after 11 days of trying desperately to get back here,” the Rebers wrote. “I am beyond overwhelmed with relief to be back, and also so full of gratitude for what we have; however, my heart is simultaneously full of so much sadness for the people of Puerto Rico.”

The Rebers said Monday while they were in Puerto Rico they saw people who were already struggling daily to meet their basic needs lose even those few things they had worked so hard to obtain.

“I have seen entire family businesses obliterated and small towns full of wonderful, welcoming people that will not see fuel or supplies or power for months to come,” the Rebers said.

“We were waited on by people who had driven two whole hours to work, who came from houses missing walls and roofs in the hopes that they could make enough money to start rebuilding their lives,” the Rebers said. “And all the while they went out of their way to be so kind to us and make our time stuck there the best it could be.”

The Rebers said they were on a plane full of people who lost everything, people trying to hold on a little longer until they could reach proper medical aid, or seek refuge with family or friends on the U.S. mainland. Many people were forced to leave family members behind because they couldn't all get out.

“I don't know what the answer is, but I do know these people desperately need help and they are not receiving it,” the Rebers said. “It is a time to put politics aside and instead focus on humanity. Focus on helping our fellow brothers and sisters in their desperate time of need. My friends and I are so blessed to be able to come back home and resume our normal lives. But for everyone back in Puerto Rico, this is their new reality for so many months/years to come.”

Charley Reber said he believes Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory, not a state, is a factor in why U.S. and FEMA responses to the devastation and humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico has been perceived as slow by some critics.

“I personally think the lack of response there is due to the fact they don’t have representation the way the states do,” Reber said.

Alicia Hartle, co-owner of Alicia's Sugar Shack with her husband Daniel Hartle, said her grandfather on her mother’s side moved to Puerto Rico about 60 years ago from Minnesota. He passed away last November in his 90s.

“Basically we’ve been going to Puerto Rico our whole lives,” Alicia Hartle said. “We have one home in Mayaguez, a city on the west coast. We have another home south of Mayaguez, in Boqueron.”

Her mother is in the States, and she has spoken to at least one neighbor in Puerto Rico.

“We’re hopeful that all our friends down there are OK,” Alicia Hartle said. “My husband wants to go and help with the trees, but with the resources the way they are, it's almost like ‘don’t go unless you’re already there.’

“Puerto Ricans are amazing, beautiful, simple and happy people,” she said. “I am nervous the island’s going to suffer because of lack of tourism. People are going to cancel their trips.”

Charities that are accepting donations to aid storm victims in Puerto Rico include the American Red Cross, UNICEF, Stronger Than Storms and Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.

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