by Adriana Rivera Sánchez
September 20th 2017 will be a date that for Puerto Ricans will live in infamy. So will the months after. Our island was enveloped by a Category 4 hurricane, after being clipped a week prior with by a Category 5. Hurricane Maria will forever be ingrained in our memories.
Before the hurricane hit, I watched in terror as the storm paths were traced right over my hometown. It would split our island right down the middle, crossing mercilessly from north to south and east to west. September 19th, I called my family and bid them goodbye, knowing that it would be the last time I would speak to them in a little while. Little did I know that it would take 3 weeks before I heard any news from my loved ones.
On September 21stt Puerto Ricans woke to a new reality. Us, the diaspora, shaken with the first images coming out of our island, were teary-eyed, anxiety-filled and down-right scared shitless to learn the fate of our friends and families. In the midst of being nervous, scared, not being able to work, sleep, or eat, we looked at our community members and found solace. A few lucky ones had heard from home, most of us hadn’t; but we had each other.
What’s next? We looked at each other, rolled up and sleeves and got to work. Drop off centers and fundraisers sprung up all around the country. As the aid started rolling in, I noticed that the San Juan metro area was the epicenter of everything, as usual. I feared that my small mountain town would be forgotten. Then news started coming out about my town. Morovis is never in the news, so I knew it was either really good or really bad. Of course, having a Category 4 hurricane’s eye come right down on a town, it would not be anything good. I braced myself.
We had lost two bridges, cutting off a whole part of our town. Reports said Morovis was a center of utter and undeniable devastation, even more than other places. It’s true that the mountain towns were hit the hardest and it’s where the aid took the longest, if it ever arrived. I decided I had to do something. Everyone was saying “Puerto Rico se levanta”, Puerto Rico will rise, but I decided that Morovis would also have to rise, thus Morovis se levanta was born.
I created a You Caring page, and along with some volunteers from a Morovis diaspora Facebook page we started promoting it on the page itself. Those Facebook pages were the only source of information for the diaspora for a very long time. There was an all-Puerto Rico page and smaller community pages for each town. We also tuned into the Zello app, where you could hear updates and people looking for information on loved ones. It all reminded me of the pictures people posted of the missing persons after 9/11, just online. Seeing pictures of the elderly, children and whole families with the words “MISSING” sent chills down my spine. People would mention their loved ones’ names, where they lived, their jobs, anything to help them find them.
We began getting some donations through the Facebook page, but I knew that at that rate we would never raise enough to make a difference. I began to promote elsewhere, and soon I was the only one running this effort. I could’ve given up, but I was dedicated. I had help from some community and grass-roots groups that really helped. A few of these groups even held fundraising events for me. During a BBQ event held by the People’s Progressive Caucus and the Democratic Socialists of America in Miami we raised almost $2,000. My friend Geoff, AKA Miami Gator on Twitter, raised $500 with one single tweet! By the time January rolled around I had $5,000. With that money I got on a plane and headed to my island.
My plan was to impact ten families with $500 gift cards to furniture, hardware or appliance stores. I didn’t even know where to start. On Monday, January 22nd, I picked up a friend and started to drive around. We were looking for families who had lost everything. We found them quickly. There were too many and I wished I could’ve helped them all.
We began in Torrecillas, where I had seen a lot of devastation the day prior. We drove past an orange structure and saw the remnants of a kitchen in the front. The rest of it was a box covered in a blue tarp. We parked across the street and wandered onto their property yelling good morning. We soon found an older couple inside. We explained our purpose and they let us in. What our eyes saw was ghastly. I felt like I was in a village in Tanzania or Sri Lanka, or any of the places your mother would mention when she said, “there are kids who don’t have food, so you better eat yours.”
When we asked about any aid they were receiving they shocked us with their response. FEMA gave them $1,500. What can you do with that when you lost everything? When you don’t have a roof and are sleeping on a cold floor? They denied the $500 gift card we offered because they had nowhere to put any furniture or appliances. I went the next day and got them groceries, a lot of them.
We continued driving and ended up lost. That’s when we stumbled upon a wreckage in Fránquez. There was an older man working and we asked him about the house. It was his daughter’s. She lived there with her husband, who was now unemployed due to the hurricane. She was at work, but we met her parents and they decided that she would love a new stove. They were working on rebuilding the home with donations from two churches, so the stove would go in the new house. FEMA denied all aid because of a clerical mistake on FEMA’s part. The young lady is currently appealing.
The next day I was at it again. I heard a cousin of mine had lost his roof and everything inside his home. I didn’t think it would be such a horrible case, but when I got inside his house my jaw dropped. He lost absolutely everything when the roof blew away. Even the clothes on his, his wife’s and his son’s back are all donated. They are currently staying inside the blue-tarped wreckage, all living in one room. He was approved for $8,000 and has been scouring the island looking for someone who would install a new concrete roof for less than $10,000. They were happy to receive the small aid from us.
In my cousin’s neighborhood, El Jobo, I found two more recipients. One was a single mother of two, who got denied all FEMA aid, and a family man who got approved for $12,000. She lost her roof and everything inside, but the concrete structure is still standing. He lost absolutely everything. There was only one wall left standing of what used to be his home. She will buy her kids’ beds and he will buy kitchen appliances. They were both happy and thankful for the aid.
One of my husband’s childhood friends’ parents had also lost everything. He asked me to go visit them and decide if they deserved the aid. After seeing their roofless home and black mold-filled rooms, where they and their special-needs son live, I knew they did. She couldn’t believe I was there to help them and gave me a huge hug. They were approved for $5,000 in FEMA funds. I was quickly getting the impression that these amounts were very small and no one could really rebuild a whole house with them.
Later that week, my brother-in-law told me he had heard of a family who was living in a horse stall. I had to see for myself. The family of four live in Patrón and are currently staying inside a makeshift basement which was used to house animal feed and equipment. They have two small girls and are living in inhumane conditions. This one also had me in tears. The young wife walked me around the space and explained their living conditions. The beds were soaked through because of the leaky ceiling. The kitchen and bathroom spaces were both in shambles. Another third-world situation, but this one with young parents and two elementary grade children. The husband came home and quickly recognized me. Turns out we went to high school together.
His parents had also lost their home and I proceeded to see what was left of the older man’s house. This was it: one wall, a sink and a door frame. He got approved for $12,000, his son’s family got denied all aid. When I gave them their gift cards the young mother told me I had really surprised her because no one has helped them yet. Her father-in-law hugged me, noticeably shaken, and told me “this is too much.” I held back my tears.
The next morning, I woke up still thinking about the family. I did a Facebook Live asking for more donations, since, by that point, I had exhausted them by helping 10 families. I was sent almost $700. With this money I bought one more gift card and used the rest to buy the family groceries.
The last gift card, I took to a house I kept driving by all week. The structure was still standing but the metal roof was all bent and badly covered with a blue tarp. The back half of the home was open to the elements. I walked up and explained my purpose. The elderly couple explained that FEMA came by, but didn’t put up the tarp saying it was too dangerous. A church group did it later on, as best they could. They were approved for $6,000 and are currently living in the remains of the home. They use the one bathroom they have, which is in the half of the house that didn’t get a blue tarp. The 70 some year-old man joked that he showers twice; once with the rain and once with the shower water.
I also gave aid to my grandmother and to my uncle who lost everything as well. My uncle is battling PTSD from riding out the storm inside my grandmother’s house which blew away, coupled with the fact that he got denied all FEMA aid. The weekend before I left, I went with my grandmother and we picked out a dresser and night table for her for $460. She’s planning on rebuilding.
When I thought I was done, I heard of one more special situation; a family living in an abandoned school. I went to a cousin’s house, gathered some food donations and we went to see if indeed they were there. They were. Having taken over an abandoned first-grade classroom for the past four months, this family was also very happy to see us. We visited with them and heard their story, offering a few words of comfort.
After ten days of no power and running around my whole town, it was time to head back to Miami. I still wished I could’ve done more and my survivor’s guilt is now worse. I saw an island I barely recognized, with so many problems and no quick solutions in sight.
Many Puerto Rican families were denied funds, such as my uncle, because they lacked property deeds. See, in Puerto Rico, many people build their homes on ancestral land, on top of pre-existing structures, and some are even squatters. My uncle’s modest home was right next to my grandmother’s, on her land. Since it’s her land, he didn’t ask anyone whether he could build his house, except her. My grandfather had his house on top of his business. The house flew away, but when FEMA inspectors saw his case, he was too denied all funds because they said it was impossible that someone would build a house on top of a business and they recorded the home as being an office.
Like that, there are thousands of other cases. One of the families that we saw in El Jobo, that was denied all funds, was told that since the home was in her mother’s name, and her mother is deceased, they can’t give her any help. There are so many technicalities and measures that just don’t make sense for a culture that just does things differently. Life in Puerto Rico is different than in the U.S., we do things differently; and I’m not judging who is right or wrong. Aid should be given on a case by case basis, taking into consideration how and where the family lived. If a family lived in a home, that they themselves built with their own effort and sweat, on their family’s land, and now they don’t have a home to go back to, why would you deny them help? Then I also remember that people that $500 in Miami for spoiled food after one day without power, or $2,000 for damages that were never even inspected and I just don’t understand the disparity.
I am very upset and disappointed at how all of this has played out. The local government in P.R. hasn’t done enough. The federal government hasn’t done enough. It has been grassroots efforts, the ones that have really touched the hearts and left a lasting impression on the actual citizens.