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Months after Maria, Puerto Ricans take recovery into their own hands

working together

For Puerto Ricans hit hard by hurricanes, feeling forgotten as they pick up the pieces is yet another blow. But as communities band together to recover, some also find encouragement, empowerment, and inspiration for deeper changes after the power returns. 

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Volunteer Carmen Borges (left) delivers meals to people in the community of Las Carolinas in Puerto Rico.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

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Gloria Cotto stands in an abandoned elementary school in this mountainous town in central Puerto Rico, stirring a giant silver pot of beans. It’s 7:30 a.m., and the blue flame of the donated gas stove is the brightest light in the room since the country plunged into darkness six months ago.

“You can only eat so much sausage and canned tuna,” says Ms. Cotto, teetering on top of a plastic milk crate, her hairnet sliding back around her graying topknot. “You can only eat so many meals alone.”

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Cotto and a core group of volunteers have been filling this former public-school cafeteria with donated food and home-cooked meals three days a week since Nov. 6, joining hundreds of volunteers across the island who are heroically helping communities survive after an unprecedented natural disaster and epic power outage. Without them, hundreds in this town would go hungry.

Volunteer Gloria Cotto prepares food at a community kitchen set up in Las Carolinas to feed people affected by hurricane Maria.
Alfredo Sosa/Staff

The winds of hurricanes Irma and Maria felled trees, cut off water supplies, and pulled the plug on the island’s power last September. Tens of thousands of families are still without electricity, requiring them to adapt to a situation everyone believed would be temporary but has proved to be a punishing new normal. That means studying by candlelight; using generators for things once taken for granted, such as keeping medications cold or chilling fresh meat; and coping with family separations that have accelerated in the aftermath of the tragedy. 

Yet, across the island, individuals are coming together to take charge of a situation the government has yet to resolve. Over the past decade, as Puerto Rico’s economic crisis has deepened, residents have gained more of a reputation for leaving the island in pursuit of jobs than for confronting the many challenges at home. Now that perspective may be changing post-Maria, as more communities unite around taking their survival – and future – into their own hands.

“It wasn’t long before we realized if we wanted to see a response, it would have to come from us,” says Carmen Texidor, a retired health-center administrator who helped launch the community kitchen here. In many communities – particularly rural, mountainous ones – neighbors like Cotto and Ms. Texidor have turned to one another, sharing resources informally and launching Centers of Mutual Support (CAMs for their initials in Spanish), of which there are about a dozen across the island. They’re cooking food en masse on gas stoves for neighbors without functioning kitchens, delivering meals to the bedridden and elderly, installing water filtration stations by riverbanks, and fostering a sense of purpose in a situation where many feel forgotten and left behind. 

The community mobilization that has come out of Puerto Rico’s one-two punch of natural disasters is, in part, a reflection of the struggling economic state of the island. Puerto Rico filed for the equivalent of federal bankruptcy protection in May 2017, owing more than $100 billion in debt and unfunded pensions. Maria transformed the already dire economic situation into a humanitarian crisis. But for those involved in the efforts to help families and neighborhoods help themselves, this is a chance to instill a sense of leadership – and push Puerto Rico in a new direction.

“When we started the CAM, we didn’t see it as temporary relief,” says Giovanni Roberto, a community leader in nearby Caguas. “Our analysis was that Maria wasn’t the crisis. The storm just exposed the need for structural change. This is our opportunity.”

Puerto Rican women to the rescue

 

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***

Volunteers – mostly retired women – trickle onto the school grounds throughout the morning on a recent Monday. Donning aprons and plastic gloves, they can see exactly where their help is needed, and they jump in: stirring pots, chopping meat and vegetables, organizing carry-out containers, and sweeping the floors.

Charito Arroyo pulls partially frozen chicken breasts out of a large white cooler and starts unwrapping them. She travels to a nearby town and buys the frozen meat and other ingredients the night before most meals. “Have you seen our fridge?” she asks a visitor, pointing to a plastic cooler. 

Ms. Arroyo lives in a nearby town but grew up in Las Carolinas. The community of about 500 people, 40 minutes south of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, is dotted with homes that cling to steep, lush hillsides or sit along washed-out riverbanks. Most of the houses are one-story concrete structures, but many have second floors jerry-built out of wood.

It is the wooden additions that were most damaged by the hurricanes’ lethal winds and rain. Some obliterated homes are already overgrown with twisting vines. Elsewhere, driveways are filled with water-damaged furniture waiting to be removed. 

Arroyo’s mother, who lives in Las Carolinas, had to travel to her daughter’s house for the first three months after the hurricanes to take showers. Other local residents bathed and washed their clothes in the river that runs through town.

In November, two area residents, Texidor and Rosario Gonzalez, hopped the fence surrounding the local elementary school, which had been closed in the spring because of declining enrollment. They were looking for a place – any place – that had survived and could be used as a staging center. Soon, children as young as 12 and retirees in their 80s came together to scrub floors and remove debris in the low-slung building, transforming the school’s abandoned cafeteria into a community kitchen.

“Everything was unlocked. The doors just opened,” says Cotto, who worked at the school for nearly three decades. Like most people in the community, Cotto doesn’t have access to a working stove or refrigerator at home since she has no electricity. Her roof leaks.

“It was the center of our community,” says Cotto of the school, as she rummages through a storage room in search of more jambalaya seasoning. “You either went to school here or sent your children here. When it closed, we lost something concrete that brought us together.”

Others quickly chipped in to help. A local chef who cooked at the San Juan airport left Puerto Rico for Orlando, Fla., after the storm. He donated his knives, pots, pans, and a stove. Churches and mosques started showing up with donated food, and members of the Puerto Rican diaspora have sent money so the CAM can purchase meat and other necessities to keep their neighbors fed. 

Meals here were provided free of charge until March 5, when the CAM started asking diners to donate $1 if they planned to take extra food. A sign at the entryway offers other options: “Trade: food, work, money. Thank you.”

Residents in Las Carolinas wait in line for free food supplied by a mutual help association, one of about a dozen.
Alfredo Sosa/Staff

***

Today, the building serves as more than just an emergency canteen. One former classroom is filled with donated clothing and home goods. Locals stage weekend dance classes and storytelling events or hold workshops to teach residents how to make their own mosquito repellent. Volunteers are painting another room bright yellow to cover the water stains on the walls. It will serve as an acupuncture center, run by trained volunteers on the weekend.

“You’ll see how beautiful this will be. It will motivate people,” says Teresa Pinto Gonzalez, a volunteer who decided it needed the makeover and bought the paint. “People’s homes are damaged, and it’s one hard thing after another. It’s important to see something cared for.”

Yet the CAM does more than provide food and give people a social outlet. It has helped residents feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

“Helping gives me purpose,” says Texidor. Her home wasn’t badly damaged in the storms, but she watched as neighbors moved away and others struggled to maintain their health. “The work is therapeutic for me.”

About a five-minute drive over the undulating roads of Las Carolinas, Maria Ortiz points to where her son’s home used to sit. Signs of his former life are evident in the rubble: A framed painting of three musicians hangs lopsidedly near a blown-away wall. A lone angel magnet sticks to the abandoned refrigerator.

Hurricane Maria destroyed many homes in Puerto Rico, including this one: the home of Maria Ortiz's son, in the neighborhood of Las Carolinas. Six months after the hurricane, Las Carolinas still had no electricity.
Alfredo Sosa/Staff

“I lost my family,” Ms. Ortiz, a homemaker, says. Her loved ones lived through the storm, but her children have fled to the mainland United States. 

“I got really depressed,” Ortiz says. She came to eat at the CAM one afternoon and was invited to come back and help cook.

“I didn’t want to be imprisoned in my home anymore,” she says. “Cooking for the community became a mental refuge for me. I realized I have to do more than survive if I want to build a better future.”

Most of the volunteers here are women, which is significant. Across the country, women have played a vital part in trying to help Puerto Rico revive. 

“Many women are leading, organizing, and participating in these spaces,” says Mr. Roberto, the community leader in Caguas. “In Puerto Rico we talk about youth [leadership], but we don’t value older women.... I believe this movement is making us recognize” their key role in the island’s communities. 

It’s also a reflection of the depopulation and demographic shifts that have been taking place in Puerto Rico for years. An estimated 80,000 people were leaving the country each year in search of more opportunity before the hurricanes. Now those numbers are expected to swell to several hundred thousand annually for the foreseeable future. 

At the same time, the island’s population of 3.3 million is increasingly skewing older. The neighborhood association president in Las Carolinas estimates that more than 60 percent of local residents are over the age of 60 – and dependent on government assistance.

Still, the people who have stayed have forged a bond in hardship. “It’s like a funeral: After suffering the tragedy, we were brought together emotionally,” says Jose Enrique Algare, a 70-something volunteer at the CAM. “I see my neighbors in a new way. We are sharing as if we are all family.”

Residents in Las Carolinas enjoy a free meal supplied by a mutual help association.
Alfredo Sosa/Staff

***

On this day, the teamis preparing a special meal in hopes that “Los Gringos” will swing by to eat with them. That’s the term used lovingly to describe the electricity workers who have traveled from all over the mainland US to repair power lines and towers in Puerto Rico. The electricity trucks pulled into town over the weekend.

No one’s power has been restored yet – it could still take months – but the community is buzzing with excitement. Two mothers leaving a nearby Head Start center with their toddlers stop to cheer when a truck from upstate New York whizzes by. The workers honk and wave like celebrities to their adoring fans. 

The island was entirely without power following Maria. 

By February, nearly half a million families were still living in the dark. As of March 9, some 145,000 people were waiting to get back on the grid. That includes the entire community of Las Carolinas. Even when power is restored, outages are common: On April 20 the entire island was plunged into darkness for a day after a transmission line went down.

“The magnitude of destruction to the Puerto Rican power grid is beyond anything we’ve ever seen in the United States,” says Col. Jason Kirk, the US Army Corps of Engineers commander for the power restoration task force in Puerto Rico. Part of the problem was the 155-mile-per-hour winds that tore across the island. But poorly maintained infrastructure – combined with the mountainous terrain in rural areas, which has made access difficult, as well as the need for large amounts of replacement materials – has added to the severity of the restoration challenge.

Utility crews focused first on municipal areas with large populations. Now they are finally reaching rural towns. In some cases, the terrain is so difficult that crews are using helicopters to string power lines from pole to pole.

“These are first-pass efforts,” Kirk says of what is still considered “emergency” power repairs, half a year after the hurricanes hit. A lot of the fixes, in other words, are temporary. The priority is simply to get people plugged in. Then, says Kirk, it will be up to the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Puerto Rico’s power utility, PREPA; and the Puerto Rican government to design what the permanent grid will look like in the future.

While local residents are aware of the challenges utility workers face, that doesn’t make living without power any easier. Many are paying $20 to $30 a day for gas to fuel their generators. In the town of Mariana, on the east coast of the island, one family painted the street in front of their home to read “SOS Water Food.” A poster hangs from their balcony decrying the expense of running a few key electronics through a generator: “1/2 a year without light we can’t manage more $$$.” 

“I can barely talk about this,” says Nelida Colon, sobbing as she motions toward the sign. “My husband and I have $900 a month in Social Security, and we’re running out of money” paying for a generator. “The government isn’t here. There’s no work. It’s like we don’t exist, like our town’s not on the map.” 

The CAM in her community recently installed a water purification system in the river near her home, and Ms. Colon visits their community kitchen for meals periodically as well. 

“I never thought it would be this way,” she says. “But at least my neighbors are organizing.”

***

At 11:30 a.m. four volunteers hop into a black minivan at the CAM in Las Carolinas. The back of the car is loaded with crates of hot soup and containers brimming with rice and chicken. The team cruises through the steep, curving streets of the neighborhood with both sliding doors open. They’re the hunger SWAT team: speedy, prepared, and full of energy. Texidor, the driver, honks periodically, signaling to neighbors that her team is on its way. 

At each delivery, women jump out of the van wearing plastic gloves and carry food to the homes of the nearly 100 bedridden or elderly people in this small community. Sometimes, Texidor starts driving ahead, leaving a volunteer to grab the next delivery while the van is still moving. Some of the houses they pass have blue tarps draped over roofs and orange netting acting as fencing. 

After several deliveries, the team hits a snag: No one’s home. Carmen Broges, one of the volunteers, calls out “Buenas!” as she walks down the steep driveway. “Lunch! Good afternoon!” she tries again, this time knocking and peeking through a back window. Just when she’s about to give up, a car pulls in, and an older man helps his wife, dressed in a flowing nightgown, slippers, and hot-pink socks, out of the car. 

“Oh thank you, thank you,” he says, when he sees Ms. Broges. She helps the couple walk the rest of the steep path into their dark home. “What would we do without you?” the man asks.

***

The US has been no stranger to natural disasters over the past 15 years. From hurricane Katrina, superstorm Sandy, and more recently, hurricane Harvey, relief officials have been absorbing lessons for future prevention of and response to storm damage.

But the economic situation in Puerto Rico is so dire that it has exacerbated the hurricanes’ effects, making both emergency relief and long-term planning more difficult. The poor are becoming poorer. Jobs are becoming even more scarce. 

“The biggest thing right now is the urgency of how Congress and the White House will address [Maria and Irma damage] down the road,” says Raúl Santiago-Bartolomei, a project manager at the leading Puerto Rican think tank, the Center for a New Economy.

Puerto Rico has elected government officials (with no representation in Congress) but is limited in how it can spend or borrow by a fiscal control group appointed under President Barack Obama. The board is meant to help the island climb out of its economic crisis. 

“If you compare this with New Orleans or [superstorm] Sandy, there’s less emphasis on long-term recovery,” says Mr. Santiago. “Who will implement long-term goals here? Who will refine those goals? The control board wants to be more proactive, but they don’t really govern or implement solutions.”

As a result, he says, the situation is pushing citizens to develop their own answers locally. His only concern is how this will work in the aggregate. “Not all communities have access to the same resources,” he says. “There are many solutions that aren’t scalable right now. What does that look like for Puerto Rico in the long term?”

One vision might lie in the town of Adjuntas, a 70-mile twisting and turning drive from Las Carolinas. 

Back in 1980, Adjuntas was at risk of becoming a site for open-pit mining. The community joined forces to fight the development, organizing protests and creating a center for community support known as Casa Pueblo. Once Adjuntas successfully won its battle, the community-run organization had to decide what was next.

Severina Hernandez Ramos, at her home in Adjuntas, received a solar fridge from Casa Pueblo through a program designed to promote energy independence.
Alfredo Sosa/Staff

“Do we evolve, or do we disappear?” recalls Casa Pueblo co-founder Alexis Massol González, sitting at a long wooden table inside the bustling community center. Outside, music students sit on the porch of a solar-powered radio station. Volunteers give visitors cups of coffee brewed from beans cultivated by the community group. 

After Maria, Casa Pueblo became a center for educating about solar power across the island. Locally, it reached out to some of the most vulnerable families, providing solar-powered fridges for those with urgent medical needs and solar lamps to anyone who requested one. As the months rolled on without power, neighbors started asking for more information about installing solar panels on their homes. A barbershop downtown now runs entirely on solar power. 

“So many groups have emerged after Maria, focusing on education, on feeding their neighbors, on helping their communities survive,” says Mr. Massol. “These new groups, they’re not running out of ideas. There’s long-term work ahead of them. It’s fundamental for Puerto Rico.”

The volunteers at the cafeteria in Las Carolinas are thinking about what’s next, too. Once the lights are flipped back on, the question is whether people simply retreat to their former lifestyles.

“We won’t stop feeding the elderly and the sick, now that we know who they are,” says Arroyo.

Inside the cafeteria, the volunteers are cleaning up after serving roughly 200 meals that day. Kids start arriving after school, picking up brooms to help with the cleanup.

“My hope is that when people come through the CAM, they leave and see their community in a new light,” says Texidor. “We’re breaking the stereotype of always taking and receiving. We’re doing it ourselves. And that’s why, when the light finally returns, our work won’t end. What we’ve created will only shine brighter.”