Ramzi and Olga Nemo long dreamed of retiring to their own beachfront paradise in Puerto Rico.
So 17 years ago, when Ramzi, now 85, retired from a civil engineering career in Massachusetts, the couple made the leap, buying a slice of oceanfront property in the quiet community of Manati, west of San Juan, for $60,000.
They lived there happily until Sept. 20, when Hurricane Maria barreled across the island and upended their lives. Now the two are staying at the Charles E. Smith Life Community’s Ring House in Rockville, where they recounted the harrowing week that brought them to Maryland without plans to return.
The two met in 1958 in New York City. Olga, who’d recently moved from San Juan, was working as a secretary in New York University’s physics department. Ramzi was interning at the United Nations when the Iraqi Revolution that year prevented him from returning home to Baghdad. He took a full-time position at the United Nations and the couple married the next year. Ramzi took night classes to earn his degree and Olga earned credits toward graduation from the University of Puerto Rico. In 1968, the couple adopted a son, also named Ramzi.
With dire warnings from U.S. government officials and news reports about Maria’s strength, the couple thought they were prepared for the worst; they’d stocked up on food and hooked up the generator. And in some ways, they’d be among the fortunate: Their house remains in good shape and they had the support of a network of neighbors.
But as the Category 4 storm dumped rain on their town, misfortune struck. When Olga, 84, went to wipe up water that was trickling in by the front door, she fell and broke her right hip.
With no way to get medical attention, a neighbor who was a paramedic carried her to her bed, assuring the couple that it didn’t look too bad. Once the skies cleared, he flagged down a police officer and the two cleared debris to create a path out of the house. Two days after Olga had fallen, the Nemos were on their way to the hospital, where doctors operated on Olga.
After five days in the hospital — Olga’s recovery time was cut short by the facility’s need to take in other patients — the couple were sent home.
“I said, ‘What happened, I didn’t pay enough rent?’” Olga says.
But back in their house, they were hardly in the clear.
Their generator was broken, waterlogged after its cover broke off in the storm. The little electricity they got came from an extension cord to their neighbor’s generator. Food and gas were in very short supply, and it was clear that Olga would be unable to receive the continued medical attention she would need.
Meanwhile, a game of transcontinental telephone — another neighbor would go to a different town to call her daughter, who in turn would call the Nemos’ son in Chevy Chase — was the only way they had to reach him.
“We had such wonderful neighbors,” Olga says. “It was unbelievable.”
But they knew they had to leave. A week after Olga returned from the hospital, the couple flew to New York’s JFK International Airport and their son drove them to Maryland. The two quickly secured an apartment at Ring House.
Olga’s recovery has gone smoothly, and she expects to finish physical therapy next week.
But even Monday, more than six weeks after the devastating storm, a majority of Puerto Ricans are still without power and the death toll has reached 55, according to the Puerto Rican government.
“It’s like a war zone,” Ramzi says. “Trees are down, cell lines are down, power poles are down. There’s destruction everywhere.”
Sitting in their sparsely furnished apartment in Rockville, the couple of nearly 60 years remains unfazed about what’s next. They’re staying at Ring House on a month-to-month basis (their son’s home isn’t an option with Olga’s mobility issues), and are just beginning to rebuild their retirement lives. It’s clear, however, that returning to Puerto Rico permanently isn’t in the cards; they’ve put their house up for sale.
“The market wasn’t too hot before,” Olga says. “And now it’s even worse. … In all my life, this was the first big storm I’ve seen, and it changed my life completely.”
For now, they’re thankful to be healthy and safe. Since arriving at Ring House just over a month ago, they’ve made friends and say that residents have been more than welcoming.
“Especially because it’s a Jewish center. I’m an Arab, she’s Puerto Rican, and we’re both Christian,” Ramzi says. “But everyone is very, very nice.”
Olga says she knows nobody would care, but she wears her cross on a necklace hidden beneath her shirt because she does not want to offend anyone.
Most important, they get to see their son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter much more often than before.
“We miss our house,” Olga says. “But for now, we’re making home here.”