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'Maria! Maria! It Was Maria That Destroyed Us!': The Human Story of the Hurricane

A woman shields her face from the sun with a piece of wood, as residents wait to receive food and water, provided by FEMA, in a neighborhood without grid electricity or running water on Oct. 17, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“This is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.” —Donald Trump, September 29, 2017

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017. One-and-a-half years later, many of the island’s more than 3 million U.S. citizens continue to be forgotten and ignored by the federal government.

Earlier this year, Stan Cox and I stayed in the Sierra Brava neighborhood of Salinas, Puerto Rico, for three weeks. We spent part of that time documenting the post-Maria situation there.

Superpower Neglect: Casting Shadows, Still

Salinas is like an upside-down ghost town with signs of the destruction of the 2017 hurricane still casting shadows everywhere—on shuttered clinics; the empty streets; the now drought-ridden river Río Nigua, which during the hurricane was overflowing the banks…

…on a flowering mango tree, seemingly leaning to shelter a broken, abandoned home; on Wilma Miranda Ramos’ broken blue and gray home, leaning to one side, and a pretty blue and silver wind chime hanging on the front door; on the face of Wilma’s pensive four-year-old grandson Xander Martinez, who regularly suffers from mold allergies…

…on a lifeless splash of brightly colored, abandoned toys; on Wilma’s broken ceiling and the patchwork of daylight shining through the blue plastic tarp that does not prevent rain from pouring in; on her wobbly floor with patched-up cracks and Xander’s yellow shoes; on a fading photo of Wilma’s son Juan Carlos, who lives in Hawaii and serves proudly in the United States Army, and daughter Jomarie…

…and on Wilma’s words:

“I have a stitched-together roof, but as I have nowhere to go I’m still here by the grace of God… It was really incredible that I survived it, and also waiting for the arrival of the lights for months, enduring the mosquitoes, the heat, is unforgettable. I am one of those who did not obtain help to fix the house… Staying here in these conditions is not easy. But since I have my daughter and grandson of four years here with me, living here and not in the street is worth gold…”

Superpower Neglect: A Theater of Injustice

The detritus of superpower neglect is something to behold. But no matter how much we residents of the mainland are trying to ignore it, the stillness of that detritus is screaming at us.

It screams at us through the teachers who lost jobs when nine area schools closed down, and the overwhelming desire of some of their students not to stay in Puerto Rico; the kids who saw all that rain start falling on September 20 and wanted to go out and play in it, not knowing what horrors would follow…

…through a small used-to-be clinic where one doctor used to show up once a week, and which now looks like a clinic out of a Dr. Seuss book with cactuses growing on the roof, and comején (termites) on the outside wall eating up whatever is left of the little structure…

…through the larger-than-life figure of Orlando Guzman Vasquez who turned 74 last month, and who broke his knee when he fell from his roof while trying to fix it (when he got tired of waiting for help with restoration), and his words:

“I born over here. This is my grandfather’s house. I have the papers for the house. My father is still alive. He’s 98 years old. He lives in Connecticut… I worked in the United States for 40 years, in New York City, in construction… I lost everything in the house, the furniture, television, everything. They don’t pay me nothing for nothing inside…. but [having a roof over his head is] better than nothing. I gonna try to finish this with the money I collect, It’s not enough money… [He points to his mango tree and says] when I’m hungry I eat the mango and drink some water, and that’s it.”

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And, through Socorro Rolon’s words:

“Everything was destroyed by the hurricane and just stayed the same way… Look at the house, it is destroyed… and everything was wet… nothing could be saved…What can I do? Just keep going until God knows when, what else can I do?… We were helped by FEMA for the rent, but FEMA didn’t help with the interior and the other things… The house is still like that… We have been paying what we’ve been able to, because FEMA doesn’t help anymore… and I have a sickness in my ears… The hurricane, it destroyed, destroyed half the world over here. It took the street, and didn’t spare anyone Maria! Maria! Nos destruyó Maria! (Maria! Maria! It was Maria that destroyed us!)”

Superpower Neglect: There’s Something About a Neighbor

The United States government would rather have us remain silent about who we might meet with and talk to in Puerto Rico about Hurricane Maria, the destruction it caused, and how the mainland responded. Such as always-smiling Fela Suren who says she’s “eighty-something,” and doesn’t wish to see anything like another Maria ever again. She laughs and adds that she wants to go to the United States…

…or remain silent about Fela’s undrinkable green tap water that she says she only bathes with; or of her roofless, destroyed home that includes a makeshift bedroom in her kitchen with a boarded window…

…or about Victoria Febás, who has a sticker next to the rippling wall-paint showing signs of water seepage in her house, that says, “There’s something about a soldier.” Victoria’s neighbor, who was living across the street, had to leave because he, like many, couldn’t find a job in Sierra Brava. She said that he did a lot for Victoria. But now she has to wait for her daughter to come from San Juan to even go to the supermarket. “There’s something about a soldier” works great in the U.S. mainland where cowards make the rules and young citizens like her son Ramón (who, like Juan Carlos is in the U.S. army) who fought in Afghanistan serve and die for them. But in the island territory of Puerto Rico, “There’s something about a neighbor” rings more true.

…or about Madeleine’s grandmother, 78-year-old Milagros Colón, whose old family home in La Plena, along with her current home in Sierra Brava were destroyed by the hurricane.

Or the words of Madeleine Flores Tenazoa, our short-term neighbor, guide and translator:

“The tree fell [through the roof] and the water came inside from the river and [Milagros] lost everything. They [FEMA] came, but my grandmother she doesn’t speak English. How’s she gonna talk with him. How?”

Madeleine says that the tree was on Milagros’ bedroom side of the house and when it fell, the bedroom window came crashing down on her grandmother’s bed.

“Thank God she wasn’t here! [when it happened.] I was in the United States, but I called my grandmother [and told her] you please don’t stay in the house… You need to go [to her uncle’s apartment on the second floor]!

“If you see what happened when Trump came, and, he laugh, everybody laugh, with the paper towel. Ah, you can get this [paper towels], like… this?! You can clean your nose with this, but how I’m gonna to repair my house?… A lot of people were like ‘ha! ha! ha! oh, this is funny!’ It’s not funny. You are bullying the people… When the hurricane passed, a lot of kids’ parents [couldn’t] buy clothes again. They can’t buy backpacks, notebooks… and a lot of kids go like, ‘oh, your mom can’t buy you this? I have this!’…We need to stop. But it’s the same when you see in the news the government behaved the same with us! You try to tell the kids, ‘you need to stop [bullying]’, but they see the news, they see stuff in Facebook and they want to repeat…”

Now that 18-month-old Hurricane Maria doesn’t make the news anymore, Madeleine, and others, believe that people “over there” (on the mainland) “say, ‘Ah! Maybe the people, they got everything again.’ No! No! No! They need… five years more to come up. If everything [is to] continue like this? Maybe 10!” finishes Madeleine.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. It is adapted from a three-part photo essay (click these links to view Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) accompanying an article by Stan and Paul Cox, titled “Vulnerable Americans Are Still Trapped in the Ruins Left by Hurricane Maria.”

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Priti Gulati Cox

Priti Gulati Cox (@pritigcox) is an interdisciplinary artist and writer. See more of her work here.

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