Five Years After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans Face the Nightmare All Over Again

Five Years After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans Face the Nightmare All Over Again

Luis Alexis Rodriguez-Cruz moved to Vermont in 2017 for a PhD program. He arrived at his new home less than a month before Hurricane Maria’s fateful landfall over Puerto Rico. He nervously followed updates, wondering how it would affect Juana Diaz, his hometown.

An old friend called him; she’d heard that the river behind his grandmother’s home had grown. The heavy rain from Maria had swelled the river’s banks. Rodriguez-Cruz struggled to concentrate on his work, desperate for information about his family and his community back home.

“We sat down [in class] to have a discussion about a paper, and it was my turn. I had all of these thoughts in my head,” he told Earther. “I remember trying to speak and I couldn’t, that was when I broke. Everything came out in that class in front of everybody….there was just a combination of sorrow, and worry, but also guilt.”

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, with sustained winds of 249 km an hour. The rain and gusts knocked out the power grid, beginning what would become the world’s second longest blackout ever and the longest in U.S. history. It was the first category 4 hurricane to make landfall over Puerto Rico since the 1930s, and it occurred during one of the U.S.’s expensive hurricane seasons. Roofs blew off homes, trees were uprooted, bridges collapsed, and roads were destroyed. Some communities lost access to running water. And while this was going on, there was little to no communication to the outside.

It’s the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall over Puerto Rico, and the island is experiencing grim déjà vu in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. Initially a tropical storm, Fiona grew into a category 1 hurricane by the time it hit Puerto Rico this weekend. The already fragile grid broke down, leaving the entire island without power. As of Monday afternoon, more than 1.3 million out of 1.4 million households across Puerto Rico were without electricity, according to Hundreds of people were evacuated from the hardest hit areas, and at least two people have died. Images posted online of landslides and flooding show the destruction.

“Flash flooding is ongoing in PR. Heavy rainfall will only aggravate the current situation. MOVE TO HIGHER GROUND IMMEDIATELY!,” the San Juan NWS said in a recent tweet.

Just before Hurricane Fiona, I spoke to several people in Puerto Rico who described how Puerto Rico has still not recovered from Maria. Not only have living conditions for the average person become difficult, the cost of living has increased. Last year, Puerto Rico’s electricity distribution was taken over by LUMA, an American-Canadian company. The company promised to repair the busted system after several hurricanes and 2020 earthquakes, but residents have seen expensive electricity bills and more frequent outages.

The combination of economic and infrastructural issues has displaced many Puerto Ricans. From 2017 to 2018, the island’s population declined by 3.9% according to a Pew Research Centre analysis. It was the largest year-to-year drop since population records began in 1950. Gentrification has soared after the hurricane as well. The influx of wealthy Americans, taking advantage of tax breaks and the balmy weather, have only further displaced Puerto Ricans from their homes and beaches.

For many Boricuas, the issues on the island are a sign of life before and life after Hurricane Maria. They were promised better, but things have only gotten worse. Earther interviews several Puerto Ricans, most of whom were in Puerto Rico during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Some interviews have been translated from Spanish to English.

Luis Alexis Rodriguez-Cruz, a food systems researcher and writer from Juana Diaz: The week Hurricane Maria was set to arrive, a friend from Rodriguez-Cruz’s hometown called him. The call dropped halfway through the conversation. When Rodriguez-Cruz tried to call his friend again that day, his calls wouldn’t go through. He was finally able to connect with family and friends after a relative found a highway that had cell phone service.

After two weeks, I got a call from my mum. She was back to work at the bakery and they had a landline. She called me, but none of them told me about the roof on my grandma’s house. That’s where I was raised. Everything was lost. The roof was blown away… All of them lost everything.

He worked to help his family while building community in his new home in Vermont. Rodriguez-Cruz tried to file FEMA forms for relatives, since he had access to WiFi and his family didn’t. He explained that a lot of older Puerto Ricans do not have property titles for their homes. In the early to mid-20th century, people informally built homes over land set aside for agriculture. Different housing laws and spotty access to power and phone service made it so much harder for people across the island to claim support from FEMA.

I remember struggling to communicate with my mum and saying ‘they’re asking for this information’… filing the application was kind of hard. FEMA sends you emails and stuff, so I had to be aware because my mum, my grandma, none of them have emails. It’s like, how do you have a recovery process in a catastrophe like this one? New Orleans [during Hurricane Katrina] wasn’t exactly the same [situation], but shouldn’t that have informed these agencies how to navigate these disruptions and processes? How do you ask people to file everything over the phone, or with the internet when there’s no phone [service]?

Rodriguez-Cruz’s grandmother could not return to her home until early 2018.

Melisa Martinez, a rheumatologist who works with geriatric patients in Carolina, from San Juan: When she saw that Hurricane Maria was set to make landfall over Puerto Rico, Martinez piled most of her possessions into one room of her apartment. She opted to hunker down with her parents in their home and said that the following days were chaotic. She and her family had to stand in lines for hours for services and supplies. Places that were only a half hour or hour drive away suddenly took more than three hours to reach. She spent the worst of the storm bailing water out of her parents house, moving furniture around, and trying to stop more water from coming in. She had to eventually shelter in the bathroom with her parents until the rain and winds died down.

When she returned to check on her own apartment, she saw so many damaged windows throughout the building. Some of her neighbours had to take refuge in the staircase. A few weeks after the hurricane, Martinez saw that she had an opportunity to leave and support her patients from the outside.

We needed to help get medication into the island. We realised that if everyone stays here [in Puerto Rico], there’s no communication. So I spoke with the Rheumatology Association. They said, ‘If you’re able to go out, we can help you bring in medication.’.. It was just a horrible feeling. And it was a relief on one hand, that I’d be able to sleep and get food for my parents.

Martinez has since returned and is working with rheumatology patients again. The lessons she learned from Maria prompted her change some of her office’s operations. She worries about supporting her patients through the frequent power outages that still plague the island.

I have a different office now. We have a planta (generator). Now I say [to my patients], ‘I have a planta, bring me your medication, you can leave it here. If you want, get some food and we’ll leave it here. And you can come every day if you want just to take your medication.’ I have patients that come and take their medications because they don’t have electricity at their house. More people have generators now, but it’s expensive. You have to buy gasoline… if someone has chronic issues, if you’re diabetic and don’t have a generator for your insulin, you’re not going to make it.

Eduardo Lugo, a psychology professor at UPR Mayagüez and therapist, San Germán: Eduardo Lugo is the executive director of Impacto Juventud (youth impact) and has worked to get mental health resources to more people on the island. He’s seen signs of trauma in so many Puerto Ricans, but especially in children. Lugo told Earther in Spanish that he’s still affected by his own experiences during Maria.

He was in San Germán with his partner and daughter during the storm when one of their windows broke from the strong winds. He barely slept that night, keeping watch over his home and cleaning up water. Lugo also recalls that, to get cash from the bank, he had to wait in line for hours. He doesn’t think the Puerto Rican government and the federal U.S. government have done enough to prepare people for future climate change-fuelled disasters. He thinks this lack of support is only going to widen income inequality and displacement throughout the island.

It was devastating. I think we’re all still living through it. There was no communication, it felt like there was no government… I had to stand in long lines with my daughter to get ahold of supplies and services. At that time, in 2017, she was only two years old. She had to sit for a while on the floor. It was painful to see that. I’m talking to you right now, and I’m choking up… Another difficult thing is, I have two kids in Caguas. After a week and a half, we could finally get in a car and try to drive there to check on them. When we made it to Cayey, we saw how destroyed the mountains were. Without trees, and all yellow. It’s like someone threw acid on the mountains there. Everyone in the car either fell silent or began to cry. It was like a symbol of destruction. Not just the infrastructural destruction, but the ecological destruction, too.

In the outreach work that has followed, Lugo has seen the long-term effects of the 2017 storm on teens and children. He explained that the outreach he does came out of a class he was teaching. Instead of a final exam, he told students to work on a project that helped their communities. The project was a success, and students told Lugo that they wanted to keep working on supporting mental health throughout Puerto Rico.

I always say that Impacto Juventud is Maria’s child. It’s a child born from struggle. It was also born from the tenacity and motivation from the students… We give educational resources to different communities, and we also support their mental health. This is important; they’re not just affected by the hurricane, but everything that’s come afterwards, too. We had [Hurricane] Irma before Maria, and then we had the earthquakes. And then we had the pandemic… This one girl in the program, any time it rained and she was in the program with us, she’d become really nervous. She’d keep asking about going home. It was raining really hard one day, and she started crying. Her family lost their roof during the hurricane.

Kenira Thompson, vice president of research at the Ponce Health Sciences University in Ponce: Soon after Maria’s winds subsided, Thompson and others at the university worked to organise volunteers. They would go out and try to reach patients from September to December of 2017, to ensure that they had access to necessary services. When they’d arrive, people in the remote areas would say that they hadn’t seen FEMA workers and didn’t know how else to access aid. Thompson helped create a clinic to meet medical needs for impoverished Puerto Ricans after Maria. It has gotten support and supplies from organisations like Direct Relief and Heart to Heart Foundation.

In some of the most remote places in Puerto Rico, [situations] that you wouldn’t even fathom. Families living even before the hurricane in very dire conditions. No steady running water. And a family of like 14 living in a very small house with techos de zinc (zinc roof). Post December 2017, we’ve established a health clinic that we’ve continued to promote. It’s a free clinic.

During that time, Thompson and others from the university tried to coordinate necessary items. Once they realised the airport in Ponce was cleared of debris, they used a satellite phone at the university to call people in the U.S. Eventually, volunteer pilots helped bring in needed items like bags of saline and other first aid supplies. They also worked to get medically fragile people off the island and into the mainland U.S. for better medical care.

[We were] clearing patients, making sure they were ok to fly. It was so sad. These were mainly commercial flights that don’t have capacity to handle people that are connected [to medical devices]. So we had to coordinate additional support planes… for patients that could sit on a flight for a couple of hours. And even then, it was hundreds of people arriving with their loved ones hooked up to a portable ventilator. Just begging for someone to take them. It was horrific.

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