After The Storm Ends.. - By Anaveth Vega
I learned two new words that fateful day, two words I didn’t even know existed in the same context: Climate Refugee.
Never in my wildest dreams could I even begin to imagine that those two words would not only forever change me, but reshape my life forever.
This is my personal story as a climate refugee, and probably the story of millions of survivors that are still today picking up the pieces, and facing another hurricane season with dread in their hearts.
For you brave souls, I dedicate this.
On September 20, 2017, “Maria”, a category five hurricane, decimated my hometown of Puerto Rico as well as many sister islands, the US Virgin Islands and Dominica, to name a few.
The storm aftermath claimed the lives of 3,000 people, just in Puerto Rico alone, and even though I was one of the lucky ones that escaped with my body physically unharmed, everything else around me wasn’t that fortunate.
To give you a sense of the magnitude of the destruction, my family alone found our third-generation home destroyed in a landslide, flooding ruined all of our belongings, our family cat died, and I buried my grandmother all in the same hellish week. Now imagine a similar story times 3.4 million, the total of residents officially living on the island at the time.
To make matters worse, the island was submerged in total darkness for many months, with the impoverished populations located in the mountains suffering the worst of the consequences, with no energy, food, water or medical aid.
This humanitarian crisis led to a massive exodus of the island into mainland United States, where my story as a climate refugee begins.
Like many others, our choice was made out of necessity as well as desperation. We were homeless, grieving and emotionally tired. My sister, who was living in Florida at the time of the disaster, extended an invitation to shelter us while we tried to put the pieces of our life together. The decision was made.
We arrived at the airport with nothing but the clothes on our backs and some personal belongings we salvaged from our now long gone home. It was there that I witnessed for the first time the gravity of our new reality. My family was only a small number of thousands also leaving the islands making lines to register and gain access to any kind of aid: clothes, food, shelter, new I. D’s. and even job fairs. Like us, they all became just another registered number in the relief government system waiting for any glimmer of hope. Once we finished officially registering, they told us to head to my sister’s tiny apartment and wait for further instructions to continue the process of applying for aid.
And so, we waited patiently until they finally contacted us, starting the process that became a lengthy nightmare of paperwork with endless questionnaires, phone calls, e-mails and demands for evidence. The process turned days into weeks and weeks into months. Everything moved in a maddening slow pace with no end on sight. We knew things in the island weren’t getting any better, and help wasn’t arriving, neither to us nor to them. That’s the moment that my mother and I decided to take matters into our own hands. We knocked on the doors of the local community, charities, and neighbors to gather as much emergency relief supplies as we could. When we finally managed to fill a storage unit with it, we contacted Hope Heroes NFP to ship them to Puerto Rico ASAP. My mother then decided to return to the island and receive the volunteers as well as the shipment containing all our efforts to actually make a difference.
And so, now after two years, I would love to say that our lives got better with time, that we received the full extent of the aid we needed and that the trauma of the hurricane aftermath is now a distant memory in the past. But that isn’t the truth.
Till this day, my family lives broken apart with the consequences that constantly remind us that we are still very much the climate refugees that arrived at that airport looking for shelter and help.
My mother decided to stay on the island and continue volunteering. There she braves the insurance company that still refuses to pay her claim after losing our home, and constant power outages and short rations, while living in a tiny rundown apartment provided by the temporary rental assistance program, the only aid the government finally approved. My father, a retired teacher and cancer survivor, had to stay behind in Florida to be looked after my sister, a single mother with two grade school daughters.
And I was ultimately shipped to New York City, where my uncle still shelters me, while I work in the hopes that one day I will be able to finally help my family acquire a home we can afford, proudly call ours, and permanently restart our lives.
This is the reality of what’s left after the storm ends. Beyond the destruction of properties, loss of lives, and the sensational stories, lies the ignored victims of the storm, the climate refugees, the ones that still live and breathe wandering the earth for a place to call home again. Two years wont erased that fact and its definitely not enough time to rebuild what took three generations to acquire. What it did do was give us the resilience necessary to overcome any obstacle in our path, and it made us even more grateful for the little things and the time we still have on earth. It brought us closer together as a family, even when we are oceans apart.
Yes, we lost everything that day on September 20th, 2017, we were labeled by the system and then forgotten. But even so, we haven’t lost hope, and I would like to believe that someday not so far, I will be able to fully reclaim my identity, no longer a climate refugee, but a person with a home to return to. Until that day comes, here we still stand... in that crossroad looking for a place to finally call our own.
Anaveth Vega is a Puerto Rican native with a passion for writing, travel and a Degree in Tourism Business Administration. After losing everything in Hurricane Maria she devoted her time to volunteer as a disaster relief responder with Hope Heroes NFP and is now looking to spread awareness of the conditions in which thousands of displaced people still live forgotten today as climate refugees.
She can be found on Instagram at nyc_fleur.
Photo by: Ivanesa Luna.