National News

After evacuating Puerto Rico, family searches for normalcy in Christmastime

Posted December 30, 2017 12:07 p.m. EST

CLEARWATER -- The tree in the hotel lobby was plastic, skinny and swaddled in shoeboxes, empty but gift-wrapped, and blotted with bows. For Gael Rodriguez, it was love at first sight. Every time the 9-month-old's mother carried him outside, he smiled and stretched his arms, reaching for the fake bristles, the thread of lights, the shiny red and silver bulbs: his first Christmas tree.

If it couldn't be beautiful, Gael's parents thought, at least it was normal.

So little had felt ordinary for Edwin Rodriguez and Maletsis Viera since Nov. 14, when they boarded a flight to Tampa with Gael and their 12-year-old daughter, Lionetsis, leaving behind their life in Puerto Rico.

They had hidden in a hallway of their house when Hurricane Maria ripped through Bayamón in September, playing games and making jokes, pretending the windows weren't breaking. When it was over, there was nothing -- no lights, no food, no clean water. They heard stories about neighbors bathing in the river, drinking from the water there, getting sick, dying.

If they waited in line at the bank for hours and managed to get money for food, the grocery store lines were even longer. The stores were out of most everything, anyway. Edwin and Maletsis borrowed a miniature stove to cook rice and eggs. Gael drank powdered milk mixed with warm water.

At night, they opened the living room window, where the breeze was strongest, and the four of them slept together.

Edwin, 40, lost his job driving trucks. Maletsis, 36, had worked as a waitress in San Juan, about an hour away. That's how they had met, two years earlier, when Edwin stopped to watch a horse race on a restaurant television. But now every place was flooded, powerless, and anyway, no tourists were coming.

A month passed in the sweaty dark. And then another.

They withdrew their savings and sold their car. Edwin had a friend in Tampa who could help them out. Maletsis called Southwest.

They moved into the Extended Stay America the day after they landed, a lifeline from FEMA. The small room had one bed, and pretzels crushed into the air conditioner.

Edwin washed dishes at a Mexican restaurant that Saturday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Maletsis and the children took walks around the hotel parking lot, or to the Dollar Tree. They filled the fridge with frozen cheeseburgers. He came home flexing his fingers.

Sitting on the edge of the hotel bed, Edwin copied English sentences from YouTube videos. I make = Yo hago. Without a job, or a way to reach references back in Bayamón, it was difficult for him to look reliable on a rental application.

It was so hard not to miss home when December came. They had a church there, Christmas traditions. Lionetsis always wrote two letters: one to Santa and the other to the Three Kings. Last year, she'd gotten an electric scooter for Christmas, and Maletsis had been six months pregnant with Gael.

They had heated up the kitchen cooking lechón and morcillas, then feasted on pasteles and coquito. They had hung Santas in the windows and surprised their friends with carols at midnight.

Twelve days before their first Christmas in Tampa, Edwin vowed to find the family a tree. Va a ser difícil, pero lo voy a hacer, he said. Maletsis thought it would give the kids a sense of normalcy. They had been hesitant to commit to a Christmas tree before, with so many more urgent errands to tackle. But it seemed like the kind of small miracle they could manage, just then.

Edwin had found a job with a carpet-cleaning company, hauling a hose up three flights of stairs, moving quickly to make a dozen houses a day. He made just $8.50 an hour, but the income made him feel good. Mas seguro.

They gave a salesman in Thonotosassa $1,000 for a used Honda that screeched on turns. It remained in the right lane when they drove to Tampa International Airport to pick up Maletsis' parents; they had decided to evacuate, too. Edwin loaded their suitcases into the Honda's trunk. It wouldn't close on its own, so he tied it with a shoelace.

They had found an apartment in Clearwater, too. They spent another $1,000 on rent and move-in fees. Fiddling with her phone, Maletsis found a free king-sized bed frame and box spring for pickup in Palm Harbor. But without a mattress, a bed for their daughter, or any other furniture, they couldn't move in just yet. And to get the electricity turned on, it would be $250. Water would be another fee.

FEMA agreed to give them until January. The hotel staff moved the six of them into a room on the first floor with two beds and a highway view. Edwin waited for his first paycheck. Maletsis found work cleaning an assisted-living facility in the mornings. She came home Wednesday afternoon knowing there would be no Christmas tree this year.

She held Gael in her lap on one of the hotel beds, easing a bottle into his mouth. He tugged on her hair. Gael had been so calm on the airplane to Tampa, his mother remembered. He stared out the window. He hardly cried at all.

But Maletsis had been scared. She didn't like flying. She knew that so much work was waiting for them in Florida, where she'd only been once before, to start this new life. The weight of it felt so heavy then, knowing her children were counting on them.

She put Gael down for a nap, moving to the kitchen to peel potatoes with knives from the Dollar Tree. She had taken the car to Walmart for groceries, and they would have chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner. It would be okay, she knew.

On Christmas Eve, they would drive to Kissimmee, where they have family. Dicing the potatoes, Maletsis wondered what people in the United States cook for Christmas. Maybe she'd make a lasagna. It would be a new tradition.

She was hoping, somehow, to find a bicycle for Lionetsis. She wanted to find more toys for Gael, so close to walking now, pulling on the bedsheets to stand up.

His mother couldn't wait to see his face in Kissimmee. They would have such a big tree there, at her cousin's house. The ornaments would be just as shiny as the ones in the hotel lobby, but they would have meaning. The tree would be real, and full, and smell like pine. Like home. She could imagine Gael, his toothless smile, stretching out of her arms as he reached for it all.

Times staffers Loren Elliott, Kathleen McGrory and Maria Carrillo contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.