First Hand Experience In Puerto Rico Post Hurricane Maria By Kira Bucca
When you think of an American, what do you envision? The dream? The middle class? The average Joe? The flag? Pride? I think of safety and security. I think of the fact that we are a first world country, a strong one, and feel good about that. We have clean water to drink and access to healthy food. I can take a hot shower when I go home after a long day at work. I can easily call/text/dm my family and friends on my phone or via social media in seconds, even when just walking down the street. I can turn on my computer and watch Netflix at any hour, while heat or AC normalizes the temperature in my room. I can breathe the air in my home without risk of illness, because my house has been properly insulated and my roof is solid. I may not be as grateful of all these things as I should be, because they are normal. They are how life is for the average American.
On Wednesday September 20th, 2017, Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico. Within 24 hours this level 4/5 hurricane turned this U.S. American island into what looks like a war zone. The wind howled and lashed at the buildings, breaking windows and walls like they were made of paper, and tearing partial or full roofs off homes. Sometimes all that was left was a pile of boards and the memory of what was.
The wind was terrifying, but the rain never ended, turning the once busy streets into rushing rivers. And what can excessive flooding cause? Landslides. I had never seen a landslide before, now I can’t count the number. It is like the earth just opens up and swallows itself. On one end, it is beautiful. The earth is fresh, like in a new garden. You have turned up the good stuff and it is open and raw, waiting for promise, but what was taken with it when it moved? When you head to central Puerto Rico, the mountains, this is where you find the landslides. There are many thin, windy streets along cliff edges that needed to be cleaned up after Maria. Many of the people are still very scared to drive along these roads when there is the smallest whisper of rain. The earth is still so fresh, it could easily continue to crumble away.
Now imagine if your car was on that road, or your home. Many homes were affected by landslides during hurricane Maria, homes that used to have backyards are now dangerously dangling over a hundred plus feet in the air, just waiting for the next storm to help them down the fresh new cavern that is their backyard. Oh, and according the the home insurance companies out there that cover hurricane relief aid, they do not cover landslide damage. It’s a different thing.
Puerto Rico is used to hurricane season, but as most locals agreed, hurricanes normally hit at night: “You go to bed and it is over in the morning.” Maria, on the other hand, attacked the island viciously for 24 hours, and its effects are still very present. It is over three months now and 65% of the population is still without power. People are using expensive gas generators to run their refrigerators for no more than four hours a day to keep their food from spoiling. Puerto Rico had a clean water problem before the storm, but Maria managed to cure that problem by destroying what was left of their palatable water infrastructure. Now the only water the people can drink is from bottles, bottles no one has the ability to recycle, which will only add more problems down the road for this island.
When you think of America, do you think of the American Dream? How about the ability to even find work? The economy was already grim in Puerto Rico before the storm, but for a lot of Puerto Ricans, work dried up with the last of the flood, leaving a lot of people without the funds to even consider rebuilding.
Clean water? Knowing that you can wash your children without risk of grave illness due to the bacterias in the water, is this an American luxury? One mother told me that every day she worries for her children, because most of the local children she knows have come down with severe cases of conjunctivitis, merely from the bathwater.
Power? How do you feel about the ability to have cool food in your fridge, and not having to worry about the already hard to get and expensive food going rancid because you have no way to keep it cool in the tropical heat?
How about the ability to contact your family and friends? Some people went as long a month before they were able to get any word to family. Imagine, you know your family was just hit by a huge storm, and you have no idea how to reach them for hours.. days.. weeks… a month? How could you live your life? How could you think about anything else? There are still people today that do not have the ability to use their phones because they do not know when they will see power again. For these people, site visits were necessary, and this is actually how the two people I went to Puerto Rico with met. Eddie was on the island a little less than a month after the storm hit, which was as fast as one could do it. Through a friend of a friend, Maria found out that he was there and asked him to check in on her father-in-law. Not only did he, but he sent her a picture of the two of them. It was a beautiful beginning to a very powerful friendship.
I came to Puerto Rico with Hope Heroes NFP, which “is a nonprofit, disaster response charity organization with a passion for providing hope to families affected by major disasters though direct recovery assistance” (thehopeheroes.org). It was just the three of us, Eddie, Maria, and myself, ready to get our hands dirty, but nothing would have prepared us for the constant stories we heard and the lack of progress back to normal we experienced in our ten days of bringing food, water, personal hygiene supplies, medical supplies, and toys to these forgotten Americans in Puerto Rico.
We wanted to go door to door to hear the stories and connect with the people. Sometimes we didn’t make it to every home we wanted to hit, because others would see us and come up to us begging for food and help. One woman saw us visiting her neighbor and ran over. She was an older woman, whose husband had yet to come back from mainland America after the storm. She told us that no one had come by to help her. It had been three months since the storm hit. She had no power. She was sleeps on her porch, because her house was too hot. Her money was running out, she was hungry, and she was so grateful.
An eighty two year old diabetic woman just down the street from her, who also had no power, nor received any aid, told us that she had not eaten in two days. She was trying to keep her insulin shots in a cooler, but it just was not working. This frail woman, who had safety grab bars running down the hall of her home, expressed to us how scared she was as she ran from door frame to door frame during the storm, convinced it was going to take her and her house with it. We left two big bags of food with her.
Morovis was one of the hardest hit, and still one of the most neglected parts of Puerto Rico. We were told a story about how a woman ran out to some men who came to town, begging them to help her son. When they got to her home, they found that her son had been crushed by part of a car during the storm, and died three weeks prior, trapped under the car. They were able to help her bury her son in her backyard. Can you image staring at your son’s lifeless body for three weeks, unable to do anything?
When they say the death toll from Maria is highly under-reported, they are terrifyingly correct. Many people were just buried in their backyards, because no help came, and it was the only thing the family members could do. However, what is worse, is the fact that people are still dying because of hurricane Maria, and these people are not being counted.
Mold. What happens when you live in a tropical climate, you no longer have a roof, and it keeps raining? Many people were just getting tarps for their roofs when we arrived, three months after the hurricane. Well, one tarp arrived just a little too late.
Meet Coquí, she is a 72 year old woodworker and artist, whose life partner of 15 years passed away in her arms. Why? Mold. Coquí basically redid her home from scratch, she put in the floors by hand, installed the window panels, make her own furniture, created a cute little garden, it was her sanctuary, and now she can’t go inside it without a mask on. Why? Mold. It took three months before someone was able to bring her a tarp for her roof. In the meantime, her partner and her were breathing in the ever growing mold, and her partner got sick. She died in Coquí’s arms three days before we got to her and two days before she got her tarp.
A lot of the homes in Morovis were badly affected by Maria. However, we only visited the sick and disabled while we were there. We met a woman who has to travel three hours in each direction to receive dialysis, because that is the closest clinic to her with power. They say if you need help in Morovis that you should look outside for the helicopters and flag them down. This may sound nice initially, but lets really think about this. To get help you have to constantly be outside looking at the sky for a helicopter that may or may not come that day. Then, you have to be physically up to being able to make enough commotion to attract their attention. If you succeed at both of these things, what happens if your land isn’t suitable for the helicopter to land on? As one can imagine, this is crazy, and as time passed, only a few people had, or have, the time and ability to attract the supplies. So, anyone who was or is sick, has dependents, or works, has not been able to receive any aid. This is a big problem, that still has yet to be resolved.
Many people suffered during Maria, but Puerto Rico’s working middle class was hit hard and completely ignored. These are the people who fought for the American Dream. They worked hard, saved their money, got a nice home, and raised their family in it. What happens when all your assets and memories are in one house and it is condemned? Let’s just say, you are no longer middle class.
This is what happened to the amazing woman, Mavel, that took the three of us in. We arrived in Mayaguez (on the west side of Puerto Rico), but our accommodations, Eddie’s family, were more central. Since we were going to be working out of a storage unit in Mayaguez, it made a lot more sense for Mavel to adopt us. She took three strangers, with big hearts, into her home, and put us up on the beds and air mattresses she got for her granddaughters, who were to arrive after us.
Mavel had not been in Puerto Rico when Maria hit, she was in the Dominican Republic due to the death of a family member. She wasn’t able to fly home right away either. In fact, she was completely cut off from most of her family for about two weeks, before the phone service returned to the island. For two weeks she was desperately trying to connect with her mother, children, and grandchildren. Thankfully, she learned that her son, who lives with her, had been called into work the night of the storm and he took their dog with him, her cat was not as lucky. Shortly after he left, a landslide had hit their home, completely destroying it and leaving it dangling off a now 150 foot cliff. She used to have a backyard. It had banana plants in it and a garden. Now, there is a hole and freshly exposed jagged earth.
Much of Mavel’s neighborhood had been heavily affected. Her neighbor just received a tarp, before that he would drag his mattress out into his front yard after a rainstorm to dry out before bringing it back into his roofless bedroom. While he has a tarp, he is still sleeping on that increasingly moldy mattress, and this was not an uncommon story that we heard.
Looking at Mavel and her neighbors’ homes, one would be confused. First, they look like they would have been very normal, cute middle class homes. She even had a beautiful tree painted on the wall near the staircase on the second floor. But then, they also look like they have been abandoned for 40 years. They are dirty, things are broken, there are remnants of the family, but it looks like it has been picked over, and only the cast offs remain. Many people are living in homes that look like this now. Normal middle class Americans, are living in homes that look like they were abandoned 40 years ago. It is post apocalyptic.
However, Mavel couldn’t even do that, the slightest gust of wind would make her family home, the home her grandfather built with his own hands, of over 30 years, tumble down a cliff. Instead, she got a small apartment with her son closer to the city center, where she works for the mayor of Mayaguez, who she gets no special treatment from. While she now has a place with power, she has to pay rent on top of her mortgage. Yes, you read correctly. The banks are still making her pay a mortgage on a house that was recently condemned by FEMA. FEMA took over three months to come out to look at her home. In the meantime, she had to hire an engineer to assess the damage. She works a full time job, but because of Maria, her once not luxurious but cosy life is no more. She, like thousands of other Puerto Ricans, will probably end up moving off the island.
Maria was not just 24 hours of heavy rain and wind like our President might argue. It destroyed the core of what a lot of Puerto Ricans considered home. Houses, jobs, family, pets, were just a few things lost after the storm hit on September 20th 2017. One thing that wasn’t completely stripped away by the winds, however, was love and hope. Puerto Ricans are amazing people who will stop everything they are doing, and will personally drive you to your location, if you are lost. They stand together and help get food, water, and supplies to others in need, even when their own homes are completely destroyed. They took in three strangers, because they knew that they were there for a good cause. Puerto Rico will once again be a beautiful island, but that will take a lot longer if we don’t start recognizing that the people there still urgently need our help.
If you are interested in donating, here are a few organizations who are still actively helping Puerto Rico: