A Look at Hurricane Maria from Our Puerto Rico Employees

During the calm before Hurricane Maria, employees at our Simmons Caribbean Bedding plant in Puerto Rico knew what to do. 96 hours ahead of impact: review hurricane plan with regional vice president, finance, and corporate HR and IT teams. 72 to 48 hours: protect raw materials and equipment; 24 hours: secure facility shut down power and servers. Go home and hope for the best.

Unfortunately, nothing could’ve prepared them for what came next.

Hurricane Maria came ashore as a Category Five storm, decimating the island, leaving power and all communications down. Some fared better than others, but nobody escaped damage. When the storm finally passed, Celestino Torres, Operations Manager, Puerto Rico, surveyed the aftermath. “I can see our plant from my house and it looked OK,” he says. “But once we cleared the road and drove over the next day, we were shocked by the damage.”

The plant infrastructure was damaged and large fans had blown off the roof, leaving gaping holes and major flooding. Despite being well protected, raw materials and equipment were also damaged. Even more concerning was the welfare of our 26 employees. “It took about two weeks to contact everyone,” says Raquel Rodriguez, HR business partner, Puerto Rico. “Some had lost everything they owned, but thank goodness, we were all ok.”

Meanwhile, employees and contractors began coming to the plant to repair and restore. Working hard around the clock, they brought the plant back online, using generators for power, in just 10 days. “People were happy to get back to work, just to have some sense of normalcy,” says Celestino.

But living conditions were abysmal, with no power, no communications and an alarming shortage of fuel, food and water. Thanks to quick brainstorming and support from a local dealer, the group got a refrigerator/freezer, washer, dryer and stove for the plant, taking advantage of generator power to set up a community center of sorts.

Early on, Hilda Soto, the plant’s controller, realized there was a reason cars were parked on the highway…they’d found a pocket of cell service. Despite the broken toes she’d sustained during Hurricane Irma and a house full of storm refugees, Hilda worked from the side of the highway several hours each day, processing payroll, managing now cash-based systems and coordinating with the corporate team in the U.S.

“It took a couple of days to get word from the plant, but once we did, our Corporate office, plus our sister plants and several suppliers quickly gathered supplies, using Waycross as a staging area to fill a shipping container,” says Bob Brown, Vice President of Finance for the South region. “We placed huge orders with Amazon and Sam’s Club, and after three hurricanes in the south, we had to source generators from California. Our West Palm site also gathered supplies, filling extra space in another shipping container bound for Puerto Rico.”

Our Puerto Rico employees couldn’t have been more grateful. “The response from our company was overwhelming. They sent a generator for each employee, water, food, batteries, flashlights, satellite phones, toiletries, diapers, even games for our kids,” says Raquel.  “When you receive that kind of love, it’s difficult to express the gratitude you feel.”

Celestino couldn’t agree more. “Our employees were going through a bad time, but thanks to our company’s commitment to all of us, we received relief. The company brought the light back to our lives.”

Today, 60 percent of the island, including our plant, is without power; water service isn’t fully restored and damage remains widespread. “Culturally, Puerto Ricans are very resilient and when adversity strikes, we strike back harder,” says Raquel. “Maria took away a lot, but she was not able to take away our fighting spirit, which means Puerto Rico will rise stronger and more beautiful than ever!”

#PuertoRico se levanta

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