National News

Puerto Ricans start lives in North Carolina after Hurricane Maria

Posted December 12, 2017 11:23 a.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 2:06 p.m. EDT

— The silence was louder than any cheers or applause.

If it were a flight on any other day before the storm, landing would be cause for celebration. There would be applause. There would be anxious foot tapping and heads poking into the aisle, passengers ready to be back on their island.

But today, four days after Hurricane Maria, everyone is still. The formerly vibrant trees look skeletal and scorched, as if fire, not rain, ravaged the island. The streets are speckled with squares of blue: tarps where there used to be roofs.

By some miracle, and despite the chaos of cancelled flights and cut-off communication, Angel Lopez-Collazo and his dad made it to San Juan from North Carolina.

Angel’s family moved to the States when he was 10, but dozens of uncles and aunts and cousins – and friends who’ve practically been stitched into the family tree – still live on the island. They’re the reason he’s back. He came to get his 94-year-old grandmother, Virgen-Mina Collazo. There’s no power or water on the island, and the generator powering her oxygen tank is rapidly running out of fuel.

On an island so badly bruised by hurricane seasons in the past, no one foresaw that Maria would not just bruise, but assault everything in its path. It destroyed physical necessities: shelter, access to food and water. It also obliterated the intangible: futures, jobs, educations.

It fractured families like Angel’s, prompting more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans to flee in its aftermath.

But Angel wasn’t thinking about how his grandparents and cousins could, and would, be some of the people wrenched from their homes. The future wasn’t on Angel’s mind at all. Just the present. Once his grandma’s oxygen tank gave out, so would she.

And he had to get to her.

Now.

39 Days After the Storm

Angel and his dad commandeered collapsed roads. They overcame power outages and scarce gasoline. They charged up the mountains of Orocovis, a town in the center of the island, to find Virgen-Mina. Their family called them “the cavalry,” Angel remembers. And they made it.

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They took Virgen-Mina from a community center in Orocovis, where some of the town’s elderly had been living. She survived the flight to North Carolina. Angel’s other grandparents went with them to North Carolina, too. Cousins followed. Friends followed cousins. Angel’s parents were used to living alone. Now, they have eight extra people in their Chapel Hill home.

Across the island, conditions remain challenging. When power is restored, it collapses again. On Nov. 15, moments after the island met its goal of 50 percent power generation, an outage swept through San Juan – it was back to 22 percent. On Nov. 28, the Federal Emergency Management Agency cancelled a $30 million contract with a Florida firm when emergency supplies were never delivered. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans are still roofless.

Fifty-five people died because of Hurricane Maria, officially. But the number doesn’t account for indirect deaths in the storm’s aftermath. It neglects the elderly, like Virgen-Mina, whose lives were jeopardized because the island-wide power outage made it nearly impossible to survive. And although she made it out alive, the death toll doesn’t account for the three others at her facility who died.

Now, a little over a month after the storm made landfall, Angel and his dad are back in Chapel Hill with the eight other friends and family members who evacuated the island. Dinner-time talk is about Puerto Rico. Its history. How it fell so behind with education and infrastructure. How it stayed behind. How the hurricane not only create new problems – it revealed existing ones.

“I had this perfect plan,” says Gloria Isabel Orta Lopez, Angel’s 25-year-old cousin who moved to North Carolina because of the hurricane.

She was in a graduate program in Puerto Rico, studying medical technologies. She was in the top of her class. Now she’s in Chapel Hill indefinitely, and she has to start the job-search process over again.

“When I say the people are OK, or all right – they’re alive,” she says, “That’s all. Nobody is great, nobody is like before the hurricane. Everybody is struggling, no matter your social status.”

Whether you had a small house or a big house before the storm, you now have no house, she says. Maria forced a fresh slate on everyone, even the people who can’t afford them.

“I never knew how much I loved my country, and to be there, until I knew that I’d have to stay here for a long time,” she says.

Angel, now 22, has lived in the States for 12 years, but he talks about “la patria,” meaning “the homeland,” and the profound connection the Puerto Rican diaspora feels for the people on their island.

“What’s happening in Puerto Rico to our culture, we felt it viscerally,” Angel says, sitting next to his father. “Yo soy boriqua,” he says, meaning “I am boriqua,” the indigenous name for the Puerto Rican people. “Right now in times of crisis more than ever.”

That’s why, when his father told him they needed to go to the island immediately after the storm, it didn’t feel like a choice. They’d wake up in the mornings to chop down trees and clear roads. They’d spend their days waiting for two gallons of gas and endured eight-hour lines to withdraw cash. They made down-to-the-wire decisions they wouldn’t wish on anyone – “Do we take this baby food? Do we go find grandma? What do we do?” Angel remembers – but that’s what you do for your patria.

“The emotional distress of trying to save people was already tough enough,” he says. “Imagine being the one needing saving.”

Angel’s other grandmother, Gloria Maria Lopez Rivera, knew she was in need of saving when her son and grandson showed up to bring her back to the States. When they told her she had to leave Puerto Rico, she agreed. It hurt to agree.

Now in North Carolina, Gloria has all the necessities she could possibly want. Walls. A roof. A bed. Food. Power. Water. A home swarming with children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“It’s Heaven,” she says, smiling at Angel.

“But it’s not home.”

45 Days After the Storm

There’s still no electricity, cell service or water in Orocovis. It’s been that way since Hurricane Irma hit Sept. 6.

Because of its location, Orocovis is the “Corazón de Puerto Rico,” – the heart of Puerto Rico. Its name translates as “golden cove.”

But what was once golden is now gone. The mango tree is the most prominent reminder of what was, and what is.

It had been there since before the town was founded in 1825. Its massive trunk and flourishing leaves were unmistakable – from almost any spot in town, you could look up and find it in seconds, the only tree in a pasture of green grass. The Puerto Rican flag flapped on top.

It was the town’s symbolic guardian, one of the only constants in its nearly 200 years of existence.

Maria uprooted the mango tree, puffing it over as if it had been weightless.

This hurricane was different.

Roads that spiral around the edges of the mountainside have been pulverized by landslides that came rushing down during the rain. Finding a home that hasn’t been damaged, if not destroyed, is impossible. Mounds of debris line the streets, like piles of snow in the aftermath of a blizzard that are never going to melt away.

In Orocovis, time is being kept in “days since the storm.” Forty-three, forty-four, forty-five. No power, no water, no communication. Still.

Living with no power, water and communication isn’t as bad as it could be, though. It means that bathing is a challenge and doing dishes is a luxury. It means the day ends whenever the sun sets, because it becomes darker than “la boca del lobo,” the mouth of the wolf, the locals say.

But if you’re living with no power and no water, that means you’re alive.

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Angel’s second cousin, Jandaliz Collazo, knew what happened. But she couldn’t bring herself to go see it up close.

The 21-year-old was staying with her grandparents, Emerito and Teresa, who live just up the road. She hadn’t gone home since Hurricane Maria hit 45 days ago, but if she angled herself in the right position, she could see her house – what was left of it – from a window above their kitchen sink.

From this distance, she could see the violent way in which Hurricane Maria had swallowed her brand-new house. It devoured the walls and spat out the smaller things, like doors and windows and tables.

She never knew how bad it was until today.

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As she approaches the front of her house, she stops to look at her washing machine in the lawn. She had secured it before the storm by roping it to the wall. The hurricane yanked it out of the house regardless, hurling it into a ditch across the street.

She keeps walking.

She doesn’t need a door to get inside the house, but she uses it anyway. She scans the sky, stepping around piles of rotten produce and trash. There used to be a ceiling above her kitchen.

She peeks into the back two rooms, the ones without walls. Pillows and plywood, shirts and makeup palettes, a Mickey Mouse hat and a shattered porcelain angel are some of the possessions scattered among fallen windows and doors and walls. She says nothing.

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This location had been perfect. She’d spent countless hours preparing the house for her growing family. She chose white paint with a rosy pink trim to border the windows and walls. It’d be a place to come back to after nursing school, a place to spend time with her husband and to bring home the baby she’s expecting in a few months.

She walks through what should be a wall into what would have been the baby’s room. She thinks about bringing her firstborn home in a few months. She doesn’t know where home is.

“It’s really sad how much money was spent to get the house ready for the birth of the baby,” she says in Spanish, “to come back to nothing.”

This isn’t how it should be. There should be walls dividing the nothingness here now, doors, a fridge full of food. The house should have been off-limits, a safe zone, a refuge and security that can’t be shaken or snatched.

She should have had it for a lifetime. She had it for a week.

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Meanwhile, up the hill, her grandfather – Angel’s uncle Emerito Collazo – is adamant that he’s blessed.

He looks around his house. There’s some water damage and leakage, but that’s it.

The pictures of his family and the portraits of Mary and Jesus still hang on his living room walls. The walls are still walls – they aren’t shards of plywood or chunks of concrete piled in the front yard.

His family is alive. No one is injured. His 94-year-old mother made it to North Carolina, and she’s still getting by on her oxygen tank. Emerito and his wife have stocked up on food, and he has a car that can get him to and from a nearby waterfall, where he fills basins of water so they can cook, flush and bathe. Emerito is blessed.

And yet, in the aftermath of the storm, the retiree is back to work, designing a water system on his roof made of basins and buckets, doing what he can to help his neighbors. Surviving.

Puerto Rico

He feels anxious and frustrated, he says. He isn’t optimistic that the light or the water will come back anytime soon. He hardly sleeps, worrying about his mother, thinking about his five siblings – he’s one of 12 – that he hasn’t been able to reach.

“We have never gone through a hurricane this bad where the communication is completely down,” he says, sitting back in his rocking chair. “There’s not even communication between brothers.”

His somber expression breaks into a smile as he points to a corner of the kitchen. If he squeezes in between the freezer and the counter, he can sometimes get enough signal to reach his sister Nereida, Angel’s mother, in North Carolina. That’s how he finds out how his mother and his siblings on the island are doing.

He knows his sister feels guilty for how different her life looks. Nereida cries when she thinks about the grocery store in Chapel Hill, or her washer and dryer, or how she took her mother away from her home.

But Emerito understands. It was an emergency, he says, and decisions had to be made.

“It is sad we didn’t get to say goodbye,” he says, “But we had to move fast.”

He knows his mother couldn’t have survived in Orocovis for much longer. Orocovis has become an island on an island, Emerito says. And he’s unsure of when, or if, that will change.

“This situation is breaking up families because they are leaving looking for rescue,” he says.

He glances up across the room at a portrait of his son, and his son’s daughter, Jandaliz, from when she was little and when he was alive. Emerito’s eyes water when he thinks about his granddaughter. Her house was wooden, his is concrete – that’s the difference between a home that was obliterated and one that’s relatively unscathed.

Nothing is the same.

“It’s not normal,” he says. “It’s not normal to live this way for anyone.”

Puerto Rico

47 Days After the Storm

On the evening of Nov. 7, Virgen-Mina died in her daughter’s home in Chapel Hill.

She told her family she wanted to die in her home in Puerto Rico. Maria robbed her of that.

For the rest of Angel’s family now in North Carolina, the future is still uncertain. It was a necessary move, they agree, especially for his cousins looking to start their careers. Puerto Rico must rebuild, but it must also conquer the obstacles it has always faced. They’re not sure how long that will take.

Back in Puerto Rico, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz has acknowledged why so many people had to leave.

“People always want the best for their families, and that’s very important,” she said. “Our job here is to make sure that they can come back.”

And she knows those who were unable or unwilling to leave the most devastated parts, like Orocovis, are still in grave need.

“We’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel in San Juan,” she said. “That’s not the story in the rest of Puerto Rico.”

To the Lopez family in and out of Puerto Rico, she had a message.

“Just know that you’re a part of us and we’re a part of you,” she said. “We are all one. And our job here is to ensure that things are better so that you choose to come back to us.”

“You’re boriqua no matter where you are.”

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Sumner Park and Heather Grace contributed to this reporting.