Six months after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, many areas of the country outside the tourist hot spots are still in crumbling disrepair – some without electricity since the first storm, Hurricane Irma – and residents of the island nation that is closely tied to Chelsea continue to suffer.
Record photographer Keiko Hiromi traveled to Puerto Rico in late March to survey the damage, having followed the story last fall when Chelsea galvanized to provide thousands of pounds and multiple truckloads of donations to help relieve the situation.
Residents of Chelsea are closely tied to Puerto Rico, with thousands here having been born there or having had relatives emigrate here from the island.
Hiromi reported that upon landing at the airport, things looked normal, but upon leaving the population centers, she discovered homes in much the same shape as the day after the devastation.
“When I landed at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport on March 21, everything looked normal as if nothing had ever happened,” she said. “As I spent five days travelling through Puerto Rico, sometimes away from the functioning tourist areas, I witnessed Puerto Rico in recovery. Many raw scars were still unmended: debris on roads, houses without roofs. Yet, at the same time, I encountered the faces of resilient, strong, patient people, compassionate for each other.”
At the Chelsea Collaborative, Director Gladys Vega and Program Manager Sylvia Ramirez were not surprised at what Hiromi found. Both said they are worried that too many have forgotten about the disaster despite the fact that little has improved for many there.
“I knew that the island was going to be devastated, and at the same time I am shocked how citizens of the United States are so ignored,” she said. “In the next few months, the hurricane season is going to be starting again, and Puerto Rico is nowhere near able to take their normal storm season. One thing I was extremely sad about is we are not getting any help. The news has forgotten about Puerto Rico and moved on to other things. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico is still in devastation. People are suffering, they have no housing and they’re hungry.”
Ramirez said she feels the same way.
After the devastation, she headed up the Collaborative’s efforts to provide aid to those in Puerto Rico, and also to welcome families coming to Chelsea from the island for refuge.
She said much remains the same there, but that story isn’t getting out.
“I think the lack of coverage in the news doesn’t really portray the reality of what’s happening there,” she said. “People go on with their lives and they focus on their kids, they go to work, Christmas came and went. It’s no longer a priority because it’s not in the news. Our plan here in Chelsea is to do another call for action in June or July to bring attention to the situation. The worry for everyone is that nothing is being done to prepare for this year’s hurricane season.
“People go on with their lives, but there are still parts of the island absolutely devastated and nobody is talking about that,” she continued.
That is exactly what Hiromi reported firsthand.
In Toa Baja, just outside of San Juan Hiromi found Miguel Anjel Mericado at his home. His home still had a collapsed roof that had not been fixed and was open to the elements. Beams rested on the floor and electricity was spotty. He collected items that he could find in order to continue the efforts of fixing the home.
Hiromi also visited Yabucoa, where Maria first made landfall.
In Vega Alta, a rural community in the mountains, she visited a family that had no electricity since Hurricane Irma – the first storm to hit Puerto Rico last year even before Hurricane Maria.
Herberto Rivera, a school bus driver there, had been powering the family home with a generator they purchased months ago. They hoped that power would come back to the community before the next hurricane season.
In Chelsea, Ramirez said they are currently working with 55 families who came to the city after the hurricane for refuge, with 18 of them still in FEMA hotels. Statewide, she said, there are nearly 700 families in hotels who arrived after the storm, and 530 are in FEMA hotel rooms. The dire need is that FEMA will stop paying for those rooms on April 20. Already 123 families have used up the FEMA payments and are being paid for by the Red Cross.
She said they are still collecting furniture for those refugees moving into apartments, and they are still trying to secure more stable living conditions.
At the same time, the identical fight continues on the island of Puerto Rico.
“There are still a lot of people without electricity and with blue tarps on their roofs,” said Ramirez. “That’s the reality.”