Life After Maria

A Year On, Puerto Ricans Devastated By The Deadly Hurricane Show Steely Resolve To Move Forward
By Grace King

On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria pounded Puerto Rico, destroying nearly everything in its path and cutting off the island from the rest of the world.

A year later, the storm is long gone but the memories of near-death experiences and horrific suffering remain fresh for Puerto Ricans.

“We’re going to die here,” Pablo Soto Soto recalls his wife telling him as the storm knocked out their windows and ripped off their roof in Yabucoa.

Soto is one of 60,000 people who still have blue tarps where rooftops once stood strong.

In the low-lying town of Toa Baja, Maria Gonzalez still cries every time she thinks about the flooding that followed the hurricane’s deluge. She says her bedridden mother was almost one of 2,975 people who died.

For most Puerto Ricans, life became defined by Hurricane Maria. There was what they had before and what they live with now.

A team of 11 journalists from WUFT News and Noticias WUFT traveled to the island for a week to document life after Maria. What captured their attention were the stories of resilience and determination to keep moving forward.

Jose “Tonty” Saldaña gave up his retirement fund to keep the lights on for his family and their business, spending more than $60,000 on generators and supplies.

A church group is helping people like Gregoria Delgado to rebuild their homes for free.

“Thank God they appeared,” Delgado says.

In Utuado, the hardest-hit town, Harry Marrero and Vivian Lopategui still manage to find joy in their everyday lives, despite having lost everything.

“We are going to rebuild; we are going to do it,” Lopategui says.

In Vega Baja, Ana Victoria Pardo volunteers her time and money to feed dozens of stray animals, many of which were abandoned after the storm.

This special WUFT report hopes to shine the light on the steely resolve of Puerto Ricans who refused to give up in the face of calamity.

“The people of Puerto Rico are very special and very strong and very resilient,” said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, in an interview with the WUFT team. “The thing that I’m proudest of is the resolve and resiliency and heart of the people of Puerto Rico.”

Dennis Rivera Guzman, a pastor at Iglesia Calvario de Utuado, agrees.

“In the end, this book has not yet been closed,” he said. “I know what the last page says: We won. We will be fine. That is the end.”

One Of The Island’s Main Struggles Is Keeping The Lights On

Last year on Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma barreled across Puerto Rico, significantly weakening the island’s power grid and knocking out power for more than a million customers.

In the two weeks following, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) worked to restore power.

Mireya Rodriguez Fernandez, a senior project manager at PREPA, said Puerto Rico was doing well after Irma. The emergency reserves were fully stocked and sufficient to handle the damage.

Then came Maria.

The powerful Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds up to 154 mph made landfall in Yabucoa, destroying the existing power system and causing an islandwide blackout.

“It collapsed 100 percent,” said Carlos Acevedo, director of the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency. “The electric power system of Puerto Rico is in the air – there is very little of it that is buried — so it is a system that is very vulnerable, a system that is very old.”

PREPA’s 1.47 million customers had to quickly adjust to life in the darkness.

In the Ingenio neighborhood of Toa Baja, Maria Gonzalez and Victor Cartagena went six months without power — until their prayers were answered in March.

About 40 miles to the southeast, in the mountains of Yabucoa, it wasn’t until Father’s Day that Ana Rodriguez and her husband, Marcelino Burgos, had light past sunset.

But for Jose Saldaña, who goes by “Tonty,” the wait for electricity was just shy of a year. He lost power before Hurricane Irma and he counted 11 months and 19 days until he had it again.

That extended period of time without power nearly bankrupted him. He spent all of his life savings to survive after Maria.

“Among all the expenses of generators — diesel, oil, air filter, diesel filter, oil filter — I have spent $60,000,” said Saldaña, noting that he’s now on his seventh generator. “That had been part of my retirement that I had… now I have to keep working.”

Saldaña operates a family-owned souvenir shop in El Yunque National Forest and lives with his wife, Carmen Roldán, in the home above it. His three grandchildren, ages 6, 9 and 13, often spend nights in his home of 38 years as well.

“They stay with me even in the darkness,” Saldaña said. At night, he turns off the generator, meaning they cannot open the fridge, watch television, turn on the lights or close the windows. A collection of solar-powered lamps helps guide his family through the darkness.

During the day, the generator hums loudly on the roof of his business, and Saldaña or his son look for fuel.

“From here to town it’s 15 minutes in a vehicle and in my own van I sometimes put 10 containers to bring diesel,” Saldaña said. “The most difficult part of living here is the way in which fuel is sought in order to keep the generators working.”

On Aug. 14, PREPA announced on Twitter that it had restored power to the southern city of Ponce — to the last customers who had been living without power since the hurricane.

But two days later, Saldaña said he was still living in the dark because of an ongoing disagreement between PREPA and the U.S. Forest Service on where to put new power poles.

“I feel disappointed,” Saldaña said. “The governor of Puerto Rico said that Puerto Rico is 100% energized …  I pay business taxes to the government of Puerto Rico, and I haven’t had service since before Irma.”

On Aug. 24, a week after WUFT spoke with Saldaña, the dispute was settled and his power was finally restored. But the memories of living in the darkness are still with him.

“I didn’t have help from anyone. No one, no one,” Saldaña said. “Only my family helped me.”

Puerto Rico officials say they recognize the need to prevent situations like Saldaña’s from happening again. In a draft recovery plan submitted on July 9 to the U.S. Congress, they proposed a $22 billion “build back better” energy initiative to strengthen the power system.

“Another storm is likely to hit, so we better be very resilient about it,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said about improving the island’s electric power system. “A lot of money is coming to Puerto Rico, and we’re committed to investing in that effort.”

Officials from PREPA are hopeful about those investments.

“We are at a time when the situation of the emergency has given us an opportunity to have funds available to do something that we might not have had the opportunity to do in many years,” Mireya Rodriguez said.

The investments in energy would include establishing and enforcing energy grid best practices, localizing portions of the grid and building a supporting infrastructure, as well as 36 other initiatives, according to the draft recovery plan.

The idea, according to the governor, is that this new system would be able to survive the impact of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane like Maria.

“We were really not prepared for a Category 5 or Category 4 hurricane,” Gov. Rosselló said. “So our effort right now is to plan for what we conceive as the worst-case scenario so that we can respond in kind.” He added he is “confident” they’ll be prepared for that level with the new plans.

But as the 2018 hurricane season comes to an end, construction on a stronger grid hasn’t started — and people like Saldaña are worried they’ll be forgotten again.

“[Gov. Rosselló] has not visited the town of Rio Grande since the hurricane,” Saldaña said. “He (has) air conditioning, he has electricity, he has all his means — and we are without light.”

The island’s emergency management office said Saldaña and the rest of the residents need to be patient.

“We have to take a system that we have one way and change it completely,” Acevedo said. “It is a project that does not change overnight.”

But Puerto Rico’s Governor Knows There’s Still A Ways To Go

As Hurricane Maria brewed in the Atlantic Ocean last fall, Puerto Rico officials worried.  

“The plans were not updated. The citizens were not ready. The government agencies were not ready. Private companies were not prepared,” said Carlos Acevedo, head of the island’s emergency management agency. “Puerto Rico was prepared to be able to face an emergency situation of a Category 1 hurricane, maybe a Category 2.”

But by the time Hurricane Maria made landfall near Yabucoa, it was a powerful Category 4 with sustained winds up to 154 mph. The swirling storm — the size an area larger than Puerto Rico — cut across the island, causing power blackouts and a communications-system collapse.

The island remains crippled to this day: Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans still don’t have roofs and its already-struggling economy hasn’t recovered, according to the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. And despite claims that 100% of power has been restored on the island, many residents are still living in the dark.

WUFT’s Grace King spoke with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló about where responsibility lies and the ongoing recovery efforts.

Q: How much responsibly do you take for the issues that are still ongoing due to Hurricane Maria?

A: Well, I am the governor. I assume responsibility. It’s my job to make sure that all of the needs of the people of Puerto Rico are met. It is an unprecedented event and we certainly have to work with several stakeholders, including the federal government, not-for-profits and so forth. But as governor, it is my job to make sure I find a way, whether it’s a traditional way or a creative way, to make sure that those resources get here. So I assume responsibility. It’s my job, and that’s why I am fully committed that — notwithstanding all of the obstacles and the challenges — to make this rebuild one that really puts Puerto Rico in a very positive position.

Q: How are the recovery efforts going?

A: It’s been a long recovery. In certain key performance indicators, we’re now starting to reach a position where we can pivot, you know, essentially 100% of the energy — or close to 100% of the energy — is restored. Of course schools are working, and so forth. Business is back on its feet, tourism is even higher than it was before the storm. So now is the rebuild, which is the one we should be getting started on now, and that’s the one I’m really optimistic about — and hopefully we can do it much quicker than was the recovery.

Q: How confident are you that the changes you make will be sufficient?

A: They have to be. Right? And that’s why we wanted to be a blank canvas. Whether it’s this year or next year or in five years or ten years, another storm is likely to hit, so we better be very resilient about it. And what we’re doing is, we’re incorporating the concept of innovation, the broad concept of innovation across the board in everything. So our effort right now is to plan for what we conceive as the worst-case scenario so that we can respond in kind. But I am confident we’ll get significantly much better and we’ll be prepared for this level.

Q: We’ve been to Yabucoa, Utuado, Trujillo Alto, Vega Baja, among other places, and we’ve seen people who are still suffering and don’t have basic necessities. What’s your message to them?

A: It’s very frustrating for me. I mean, we’ve been trying to reach everybody. We’ve been bogged down by inexplicable bureaucracy in some fronts on the federal level and, you know, bureaucracy knows no pain. So, what we’re — what I’m committed in doing and what we work 24 hours a day on doing is — trying to identify all of the folks that are in dire need. You know, as I mentioned, there are some things that are almost completely back to normal or even better than normal now. But there are some other things that are still significantly delayed — such as rooftops. We still have about 60,000 people that don’t have rooftops and that’s just no way to live. My expectation is that we should be getting the draw downs for the CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funding, which is $1.5 billion. About 70 percent of that goes to housing needs, so hopefully where other efforts have failed, getting access to this funding can enable us to rebuild quickly those homes.

Q: Part of that rebuilding is that some people don’t have property titles to their homes. In April, you met with Secretary Ben Carson at the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, and you said that you wanted to help those people get federal assistance. What actions have been taken toward that?

A: We drafted and submitted and got approved an action plan that has several components that allows us to start making that transition so that folks that have informal housing can have formal housing or those that just don’t have the documents can get it. Many of these situations are land that has been family-owned for decades, if not a century and, you know, the paper(work) was lost. So we’re getting funding now to help identify those areas and to help them get their title, No. 1; No. 2, we’re creating a GIS (Geographic Information System)-type system. We don’t have all of the properties fully registered, and therefore we don’t have the visibility towards them. So now this effort, as we go formalizing some of the informal housing and giving people their titles, we will also have visibility so we can respond better after the storm. But we would like to add one last caveat to that and that is making sure that people that are in dangerous areas can transition to safer areas. So we’re doing the construction codes, the mapping of flooding areas and trying to get communities that were really affected by the storm to consider possibly moving elsewhere.

Q: What’s the death toll from Hurricane Maria?

A: We’re awaiting a study from George Washington University, but the total’s going to be very high. There are some studies that have pegged it between 800 to 8,000. That’s a wide range. There have been others that have narrowed it down to anywhere from 1,400 to about 2,500. So somewhere there. And what we want to do is give clarity to that number, give as much scientific certainty to it, and most importantly, learn what we can do better for next occasions so that we can respond more effectively. The heart of the study is evaluating what things can be done better. You know, for communication, for public health, health preparedness, for an immediate response if another storm comes to Puerto Rico. What we’re going to do is not only for Puerto Rico, but really for anywhere else in the world — and in our nation, to have a better grasp of how to respond when everything falls out and to make sure that people’s lives are safe.

Q: If you had to grade your performance as governor during this process, A to F, what would you give yourself?

A: I let others do the grading. All I can say is that I haven’t stopped working, and I think I’ve made some very good decisions. I think I’ve made some mistakes, and I’ve owned up to them. And that’s part of the process. And my commitment is on those good decisions, try to make them better, even better toward the future; and on the mistakes, try to fix them so that I can learn from them and we can be better as a people for it.

Q: What has this experience taught you about the people living on the island?

A: As we’ve talked about, there’s been many challenges. But the thing that I’m proudest of is the resolve and resiliency and heart of the people of Puerto Rico. Two storms hit Puerto Rico. It was Irma, and it was Maria two weeks afterwards. I’ve seen their willingness to help others and to withstand situations quite frankly other jurisdictions wouldn’t withstand. So, being almost a year without energy, having months without access to water, being perhaps over a year without a rooftop — and seeing people that had devastation of their own to deal with helping others that were in a most vulnerable position, I think that what it has taught me and what it has taught the world is that the people of Puerto Rico are very special and very strong and very resilient.