On September 20th of 2017, Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 250km per hour. The death toll has been discussed by many investigative local media outlets, claiming fatalities of upwards of 1,000 people. The government still claims the number is lower than 70. Listen to Deborah Gordils Molina, Cayey resident, talk about the before and after.
193 days later, there is 90% power generation (which does not equal the amount of people with working electricity).
During the month of September, communication was impossible. People lined up in the highways outside of their cars walking through the mediums to catch a bit of cell signal and tell their loved ones they’re alive. And that’s the story of the lucky ones who could get out of their homes and get in a car with some gas in the tank.
Stories regarding this tremendous natural disaster are never ending. To this day, peaking on almost seven months, voices yelling for help can still be heard in any one of your favorite media outlets, paper and shows. Gubernatorial issues keep piling on top of the very weak infrastructure the island sits in, not to mention the Presidential negligence and ignorance towards the issue.
I traveled to the island, with the help of listeners and people who supported my cause, along with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief on December 7th to the 13th. I remember saying back then, after a long day of talking to people and driving through unstable roads, that I wasn’t going to see the situation go away in my lifetime. After September 20th, nothing would be the same. And it isn’t.
I spoke to a lot of people. As a person who still has all of their family, all of their friends in the island, social media becomes an encyclopedia of information. I see everything from protests, suicide indexes, people still without electricity.
When I embarked on this trip, I was told to tell the story from my perspective, a narrative of everything I saw. I saw communities coming together to create sustainable living in a state of emergency, I witnessed firsthand the stress of traveling down the roads, up the mountains, into streets close to becoming cliffs.
Click here to see part of one of our trips. (A link will start downloading, don’t get scared!)
After everything I witnessed, I wish I had had more time. We wanted to communicate everyone’s struggle, even if that meant they would all be saying the same thing. “We STILL need help”.
The father standing in the middle of his second floor apartment with no walls, no doors, no roof to surround him. The sight of an airport packed with people with 3 and 4 pieces of luggage each, of feeling so inconsolably helpless and useless.
In this series you will find a compilation of voices yelling for help in December, somehow still relevant to this day. These are the voices that still need to be heard, this is where you should still reach out to and offer a hand.
During the trip I visited the city of Vega Baja, one of the most affected municipalities. Arriving at the Panaini neighborhood, all that could be seen for stretches were piles of debris and vegetative waste the size of houses, houses that weren’t there anymore to serve for comparison. Most of these houses were two stories, with the second floor built on wood and zinc. The entire neighborhood was full of houses that, on the top, had naked stoves and bathrooms, remainders of where the bedrooms would be. José Manuel Dominguez spoke to me about the situation:
Dominguez and his family have, since then, recovered electricity in the house that they’re staying in. Their house, however, still remains destroyed with no attention from FEMA or the government.
The hurricane affected everyone differently depending on the generation. Many of the elders in the neighborhood, like Esmirna Vega, told me things like “We’re on our way out”, dismissing their struggle because of their age. Most of them worry about the younger generation and the difficulties the storm brought. Luz Morales, 19, talks about her experience.
Luz’s house is also part of those that are still destroyed. With the surplus money from this trip we bought solar light bulbs for the Panaini neighborhood.
Many times, the inconsistency of the recovery makes it seem like entire municipalities have fixed their issue, when many within still await for help.
In some cases, people got tired of waiting and saw that they had the tools and abilities to create an oasis for themselves and other around them. Such is the case of La Loma, in the Barrio Mariana in Humacao. In this barrio, a group of people borrowed a community space and turned it into a kitchen where people from around the municipality and other neighborhoods could come and exchange labor for food, give donations or work out a deal to acquire food and a place to be.
With time the space has evolved into a self sufficient and environmentally friendly space where rainwater is filtered and solar panels power the structure.
Listen to the organizers talk about the space, their experiences and what they have learned from conducting this community effort.
La Loma is still active today, and everyone involved in the project hopes to be an example to other communities. They want people to know it is possible to take matters into their own hands and become empowered by the process of becoming “autosustentable”.
I also spoke to people in the capital who are struggling. This is not a situation many expect to hear about, as San Juan was one of the first municipalities to be energized and all around paid attention to. Within San Juan, there are many barrios and neighborhoods that do not enjoy of a high economical status. These places get pushed aside and forgotten.
Raymar Vaerga is a small business owner and clerk at a local shop in Santurce, San Juan. His house is in Rio Piedras, another barrio that is largely known for it’s student life and home to the University of PR’s biggest campus. Listen to this talk about his situation:
I tried to get in touch with Reymar to follow up, but his phone number and web page are unresponsive.
While more protests regarding other pressing matters brew on top of the still ongoing recovery, the upcoming hurricane season begins in June 1st. There is yet to be official conversations about the island’s preparation for the next round.
Journalists inside the island are out and about every day working hard to give the public firsthand information. When in doubt, visit them first. Here are some of the media outlets you can visit for everyday information about Puerto Rico:
Noticel, El Nuevo Día, Claridad, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, Piso 13, Radio Isla 1320, Radio Universidad
Featured Image Credit: Noticias de San Lorenzo
“We can’t do this anymore, going on 7 months without power, Bo. Quebrado, San Lorenzo”
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