Chelsea Poppens in action (Photo courtesy Iowa State Athletics Communications)
They lit candles. They shuffled cards. They did anything they could to drown out the sound and fury raging outside their front door.
For some 20 hours beginning in the early morning of Sept. 20, all Chelsea Poppens and her recently-met teammate could do was hope the structure in which they lived would stay in tact while being battered by Hurricane Maria.
The two professional women’s basketball players had persevered through relatively minor inconveniences caused by Hurricane Irma, which narrowly missed the U.S. Commonwealth.
This storm, they knew, was different.
“It was kind of scary during the storm, because after (Irma), we didn’t know what to expect,” said Poppens, one of the toughest players in any sport to don the cardinal and gold. “We had everything packed up in our car. Everything we owned and we’re like, ‘We’re going to our teammate’s and hang at her place because she lives on a higher hill.’ And we’re driving around and then they told us to go back to our place because our neighbor had a generator and she’s the one we kind of lived with in the guest house downstairs. Everyone was so chill about it because they’d been through hurricanes before and for hurricanes you stayed in your house. You don’t need to go to a shelter or anything. Just stay inside during it.”
She continued, poignantly.
“It will be a few hours, but Maria was like all day. It was like 20 hours. It started at 4 a.m. and I tried to sleep through it because I didn’t really feel like confronting it. But you could hear everything just getting smashed outside. It was like a constant wind and it wasn’t just regular wind, it was like a raging wind. And there’s this eerie whistle through all the cracks in your house and then I came out and (my teammate) was like, ‘I’ve been calling your name. I’ve just ben out here sleeping.’ and she was like huddled up against the door; scared something was going to come slamming through the window. The washer and dryer were outside just getting tossed around. Our satellite (dish) came off the house. It was just kind of scary because it was a very long process but we handled it pretty well. We had candles lit. Some music. Drank some Coronas. Played some cards. Read a lot of books.”
Twenty hours. Little sign of rescue. But Poppens’ parents, Carma and Tony, were navigating tangled phone lines and crossed messages.
Initially, a Saturday flight out of Puerto Rico seemed possible, but that trip was cancelled. And that’s when the tough-as-nails former ISU star began to worry.
“I kind of wanted to cry the first time,” Poppens said of the first cancellation. “It was rough. (The hurricane) hit on Tuesday night, Wednesday morning and when I learned that it was cancelled it was Thursday of the next week. My agent had told me, my mom told me, and I was, ‘No! I need to leave.’ It’s fine to be without power, but you couldn’t contact your family members unless we climbed this hilltop 30 minutes into town. We couldn’t drive all the time because there wasn’t much fuel around and if you did get fuel you’d have to wait like five hours at a gas station. It was too much stuff. It was so hot at night. Our generator — we didn’t have fuel for our generator. It was just brutal.”
But they had candles. Card games. A few Coronas.
Other people were wading through chest-deep water trying to locate loved ones; trying to rediscover some sense of normalcy amid the utter chaos.
According to vox.com, at least 16 people are dead because of the storm. That count is likely to climb as more isolated outposts begin reporting as communication systems come online.
“We don’t struggle as much as the actual locals,” Poppens said. “There’s a lot of people in the area we were living in that needed food stamps. Food stamps don’t work when a hurricane comes. You need cash. And ATMs are down so people can’t get cash so it’s just a never-ending problem for people. People can’t get water. The water’s running out. Not enough supplies. Batteries. Lights. Fuel. There’s so many little things that come into play. Elderly people in the nursing home. People in the hospital. It’s just a lot of things. People that actually have to support their families and make sure everybody’s ok, whereas my teammate and I just kind of had to look out for each other.”
Poppens said this year has been an “eye-opening” experience for her.
She served on an Athletes in Action mission trip to the Ivory Coast a few months ago, witnessing and minestering to abject poverty first hand.
Now she’s dealing with the aftermath of Maria — fully knowing she’s fortunate to be back in the U.S. in a warm, bug-free bed.
“Today’s kind of an adjustment day,” Poppens said. “(My teammate) and I were joking around about it, ‘First world culture shock.’ Light switches that actually work. Like everything we take for granted — power, your cell phone actually works. You can drive anywhere you want and there’s no lines. Just little bits of everything — AC. Being able to sleep in a comfy bed and not being eaten up by bugs. A little bit of everything. I don’t think I’ve ever been so humbled.”
One of ISU’s toughest players (just ask Bill Fennelly) — in any sport — knows she’s one of the lucky ones.
“It’s actually really sad,” Poppens said. “My neighbors had told me a lot of people were considering leaving because of the economy but now that the hurricane hit, that puts a dent in a lot of people’s living situations. The careers that they have — when and where their next paycheck’s going to come from. The communication’s down. A lot of people can’t really get ahold of their family members in a lot of towns. It’s difficult in all aspects. It’s heartbreaking.”
But Poppens wants to help. Even though she spent just a month in Puerto Rico, she’s in the initial stages of trying to find ways to fundraise for the rebuilding effort that will come [author’s note — we’ll keep you updated on these efforts].
Poppens’ own career that has wound through the WNBA, Australia, Poland, Switzerland and several other far-flung locations. It’s on hold as she finishes up an online MBA program through the University of Florida. After that, she’ll dive for loose balls, bow up for charge calls and dazzle someone, somewhere with her unblockable scoop shots, as always.
“I told my agent, I told her, I might need a week or two to mentally get recovered,” Poppens said. “So we have time. I’m still figuring out my situation.”