‘Like a dystopian novel’: Puerto Rico still mourns, five years after María
San Juan, Puerto RicoEveryone on this Caribbean island understands that the phrase “en Maria”–in Maria–refers not to a place, but to a place in time. Not the sixteen hours Hurricane Maria spent whipping the island with 155 mph winds, blowing down trees, homes, bridges, electrical lines, cell phone towers, and everything else in its path. And not the 20 inches of rain the tempest poured over the devastation, unleashing landslides and epic flooding.
“En Maria” refers to the miserable months that Puerto Ricans had to endure after the worst natural disaster in modern history. Weeks spent waiting in line to get into a supermarket, where food, water and hygiene products were rationed. Hours spent in another line to get gasoline for cars or generators to withstand the longest blackout in history. (First place goes to the Philippines, following Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. It was when calling loved ones or reporting an emergency required using hard-to-get gas to get to far-flung places where someone had managed to get a signal. It was a time of day-long errands, when the usual 30-minute drive could take three or four hours. People with chronic conditions or who needed urgent medical attention couldn’t get to a doctor. A time when more than 3,000 people perished because of these challenges–or in the midst of them.
When Puerto Ricans talk about “en Maria,” they’re talking about the interminable, helpless time that came after September 20, 2017, when Maria, then a deadly Category 4 hurricane, thundered ashore. That extreme weather event was followed by a series of other blows–earthquakes, political turmoil, the COVID-19 pandemic, and ongoing power outages–making life for many residents a race for survival. Many people on this island, which is a United States territory are still in mourning. They have had little time to process the devastating losses.
No time for mourning
“These last five years have been almost like a dystopian novel,” says Felisha Roman Muniz, 30, who lost her father Jose Luis Roman Melendez less than three months after the storm. Jose Luis was in hospice care at the family home in Aguadilla on the west coast of the island. He had a terminal, debilitating illness.
Felisha and her mother, Maria Lourdes, say they were lucky. Although healthcare providers were able resume home visits one week after the storm, maintaining critical medical equipment required frequent trips to nearby gas stations to recharge a small generator. Jose Luis was close to his death and his younger brother, who lives in New Jersey, managed to fly to his last visit. He arrived at his family home a few hours late.
After Jose Luis died, daily life for Felisha was focused on survival. She was too busy to mourn. “In 2018, my grief was silent,” says Felisha. “I just didn’t talk about it, and I felt like everyone on the island was the same, that we didn’t have the time to process.”
For Felisha, work became her coping mechanism. Felisha got a job in San Juan at a call center and spent most of her year paying the bills. She kept busy, just like many others, to avoid dwelling on the daily hardships and destruction.
Her mother, however, found comfort at a nearby Pentecostal church which she attends every Sunday. To care for her parents, she moved in with them. Earlier this year her mother fell ill and died of complications from diabetes at the age of 79. Her death came on the same day Maria Lourdes’s late husband would have turned 70.
Maria Lourdes still cries when she thinks of Jose Luis and her mother, and about how much her life has changed over the past five years. She says that tears are an essential part of grieving. You may feel nostalgic at times, but it is normal. Only those who cry can heal.”
Psychologist Hector Javier Rojas Gonzalez says traumatic experiences can skew our perception of time. He says, “When someone is in pain, it’s almost like time stops.” Many of his patients in Naranjito (a mountainous village in the middle of the island) are still suffering from the effects of the hurricane.
“I hear how Maria was like a curse for many of them,” says Rojas Gonzalez, “how they can pinpoint that, from that moment on, their family is worse off.”
Rojas Gonzalez had recently finished graduate school when a group of physicians in San Juan organized a trip to bring aid to Vieques, a tiny island off the east coast of the main island.
“Vieques was one of the places that shocked me the most,” he says. He recalls a single mother who was tired after sleeping for many nights. Due to the intense heat, the windows in her home had to be left open. She was trying to prevent mice from entering her house and biting her baby.
Another resident of Vieques, 65-year-old Modesta Santos Maldonado, had apparent vascular problems and was suffering from a gangrenous toe. The local hospital was severely damaged by the hurricane, and doctors said they were not equipped to assist her.
Santos Maldonado’s daughter, Rosa Correa Santos, tried to arrange transport to the main island on an air ambulance, but the aircraft was on its way to a neighboring island. They were offered a lift to San Juan by the pilot of a private aircraft. They were able to get from Vieques to San Juan by taking a private plane.
Three hospitals, death, and cherished memories
Santos Maldonado lay on a stretcher for days with her daughter sitting on the floor next to her. A steady stream of patients came in, many with life-threatening injuries. Her mother stole a blanket and pillow Correa Santos purchased for her at a hospital store.
“They would not say anything,” says Correa Santos. “There were so many people that the only thing we could do was to wait.”
Eventually, Santos Maldonado was moved to another public hospital, but again doctors said they were unable to treat her. She was then transferred to a private San Juan hospital for the third time. There, on October 1, 2017, she took her final breath. Just hours before her scheduled surgery, a blood clot claimed her life.
Correa Santos quickly arranged for a funeral home to retrieve her mother’s body, afraid it would end up piled up with other corpses in the hospital’s makeshift morgue. She heard similar stories from others.
“There were so many people dying,” she says. “They told us that we needed to take my mom out of there or they would have to throw her on the floor, in a hallway.”
Less than three years after burying her mother, Correa Santos lost her 75-year-old father to a stroke. She now lives alone in her family home, near a beach she rarely visits. Family photos remind her of the enormity of her loss. Many of the photos are of family gatherings, where everyone is smiling.
Correa Santos’s most valued treasure is tucked inside a jewelry box hidden in a drawer at the back corner of her bedroom: her parents’ wedding rings. “I was always there with my mom and dad,” she said, trying to comprehend how a hurricane could come and go, but its power is still present.
Maria keeps roaming the streets of Vieques, where patients who need urgent care–like Santos Maldonado did after the storm–still have no local hospital to receive treatment. Maria destroyed it. It has been neglected by the federal and local governments.
Correa Santos would like to move on, but she finds herself still trapped “en Maria” each time she remembers the hospital hallways jammed with hurricane victims and the pain and desperation she experienced during those days.
“There’s always something that comes back to you and makes you remember.”
Gabriella N. Baez is a documentary photographer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She specializes in intimate subjects like family, grief, and homosexuality in the Caribbean. See more of their work on her website and on Instagram.
Laura N. Perez Sanchez writes about corruption and its impacts on the population, post-disaster recovery efforts, and lived experiences under colonialism. She’s a 2019 Nieman Fellow, and a contributor to Spanish and English local and international media outlets. Follow her on Twitter.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.