Home » Reflections » Profile Piece

Category Archives: Profile Piece

css.php

Hurricane Andrew Survivor Profile

In the era of climate change where warmer oceans are amplifying hurricane season, causing bigger storms to happen with increasing frequency, it’s useful to look back at Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Andrew was the last Category 5 to make landfall on the mainland United States before Hurricane Michael in 2018.

It’s hard to imagine that a place like South Florida, with it’s well-known natural hazard risk and location next to a major Air Force Base, would be so socially vulnerable. But the reaction to and recovery from Andrew was a major test of how this country with all its wealth and resources can handle even the expected in hurricane-prone areas.

I recently caught up with my Aunt Terry to get her survivor account of this experience. She moved to Gainesville after Andrew. But the move wasn’t because of the hurricane. It was because of the increased crime and failing schools, schools where Terry worked as a teacher. Before Andrew, Terry thought she would live the rest of her life in South Florida. “We had good jobs down there. We came up here with nothing. I mean we had no jobs,” she said.

At 5 a.m. on Monday August 24, Hurricane Andrew made landfall in South Florida 10 miles east of Homestead and 25 miles south of Miami. My family was from Homestead. They’d settled there after a lot of moving around because my grandfather was in the Air Force.

Terry was born in Texas in 1956. “I was four when we moved to the Philippines and then we moved to Homestead and that’s where dad retired in 1960 … I could see it, the house all white, by the railroad tracks and a lot of water.”

In 1960, Hurricane Donna hit. It was the last major hurricane, defined as anything above a Category 3, to strike South Florida before Andrew.

“Yeah, I think we were still moving in … mainly the storms then were just wind and a lot of rain,” Terry said of Donna. “That one most of what you had was the rain because we could put a boat out and you could canoe down the roads. And I mean there were some people that had motorboats, little small boats, that were going down the road. That’s how much water was in there.”

Andrew was a small and fast-moving storm so tracking it was difficult for the forecasting technology at the time. Even those around Homestead Air Force Base like Terry were surprised. “They were still having planes taking off… they were still open trying to get rid of all the planes and stuff and evacuated. But the people, we didn’t get an evacuation notice. That was one thing that ticked everybody off. If they’d have said evacuate, we’d have been long gone and we wouldn’t have stayed in the houses.”

Andrew wasn’t just one storm. It resulted in multiple tornadoes.

“All those tornadoes that were with it, that’s what got us. We were sleeping. We didn’t know it was going to be that bad. We just redid our whole house two days before that stinking thing hit and what happened was our window got blown out in our bedroom. Then you started hearing this ‘flap flap flap flap flap.’ It was taking the shingles off the roof, so the roof was opening up.”

As the night wore on, trees uprooted and infrastructure crumbled.

“A huge, like, half a tree came through the bedroom window. Our first thing was, go get the kids because Liz was 8 and Matt was 10 or 11. We got Liz and then the limb came right through the roof in her bedroom just as we had dragged her out. And we got Matt out of his room and went back to our bedroom, but the door had come off. So, then I tried to push Liz’s door up against her window so we could get back in it and get in her closet because she’s the only one that had a mattress.

“Our idea was to wrap the mattress around and get in the closet because we all had waterbeds back then. We got in the closet and wrapped the mattress around us. And me and my husband John stood and we were holding it and he was in front leaning on it so the mattress would stay around the kids and keep them safe.

“It’s pitch black you don’t know what’s happening. There was no idea, you just heard this sound. I mean when they say the tornado sounds like a train on the tracks. That’s exactly what it sounds like coming through the house. And that’s when everything started blowing all to pieces and gone and walls and stuff. But when we finally got daylight and you can see stuff in the storm, after the first half when the eye of the storm passed over then you can see that our place where we were at was the only thing that was there. The back walls were gone.”

Even one of family pets wasn’t spared. “We found our fish in a puddle down the street. But we couldn’t do anything with him.”

The recovery was a disorganized mess, according to Terry.

It took a while for Red Cross to get to people in need.

“When I got that first ice cube, because that’s all I wanted was something cold. Just give me an ice cube, I don’t care about the water, give me an ice cube.”

It took a week or two just to clear out the area with chain saws. Air Force and Army helicopters constantly hovered above because there was a large field down the street from her home. No one could get in or out of the area because of the wreckage in the streets. Contractors stole money for repairs that never happened. People’s belongings were stolen in shelters and off the street.

“It was scary, like being in a war zone.”

The Ones Who Stayed

By Alexus Rios

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20th, 2017, it wreaked havoc on the island causing widespread destruction and disorganization in American History. Two weeks had passed after the storm and most of the island residents lacked access to electricity and clean water. This was the worst storm to strike the island and will haunt the residents for many years to come.

The scale of the destruction of the hurricane was devastating and for months after the initial disaster, most families and businesses remained without power, clean water, food, medicine, and limited cell phone service. Unable to have their basic needs met, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans left altogether but what did this mean for those who choose to stay.

Many people are still struggling to get enough food, access to social services, like healthcare, and cope with the emotional stress of losing homes and loved ones.

I interviewed a family friend (who prefers to keep his identity private) that currently lives in New Jersey and is a retired security officer, who grew up in Puerto Rico. Growing up he remembered Puerto Rico being a lot of things “ Man growing up in Puerto Rico was definitely something different before I came to New York, I never thought I would be bullied for my accent, but looking back at it, I’m glad I left because look at it now”. He had a very humble upbringing and grew up in a house with his mother, father, and 6 siblings. He recalls being in the sun all the time and enjoying the presence of his family, culture, and food. Although he does not regret his decision moving to New York he was saddened by the way his people back home are getting treated in this time of need.

He felt that he was lucky enough to be able to afford moving out of Puerto Rico and to get a job that would help support his mother who decided to stay. He expressed that even though he did not experience the hurricane himself, he was mentally distraught and will never forget that feeling and horrible thoughts running through his head of what could have happened to his mother who is 90 years old and was all by herself at the time without knowing if she was alive or not. “It was the worst feeling ever, I was scared and felt hopeless and I really thought she had died. I was never going to forgive myself for not being there to help her out. Man I tried calling so many time but since the electricity was out I never got an answer and it was just horrible. “ 

After this interview took place I realized how a disaster can not only destroy someone’s home but also their hope and faith in a government that is supposed to help them in a time of need. Luckily enough the people of Puerto Rico were resilient to come together and help each other. Even though they should not have to only depend on themselves, they realized that if they were not going to help themselves then who was? Some were reconnected with their families and others sadly were not so lucky.

Recalling Hurricane Gilbert in Jamaica

The evening of September 12th, 1988 has been stamped into the memory of so many people; it was the night that Hurricane Gilbert ravished the Jamaican island. There are very few Jamaicans who experienced Hurricane Gilbert that don’t reference it today. However, those individuals were old enough to recognize the severity and importance of the hurricane despite whether or not they’d be severely impacted. To have lived through Hurricane Gilbert has always been referenced to me as a blessing growing up as a young Jamaican woman. However, the unimaginable for so many Hurricane Gilbert survivors is living through another. Unfortunately, Tameika Halliman experienced both Hurricane Gilbert and Hurricane Sandy. I had the opportunity to interview her and be able to document her experiences. 

Images of ruins in Jamaica after the 1988 storm.

Ms. Halliman was only 9 years old when Hurricane Gilbert hit, and it’s amazing to see how vivid her memories of the event are. Her ability to recount these events and even recall the emotions that she was experiencing really put into perspective the long-term impact of trauma and traumatic experiences. 

For Tameika, the days leading up to Hurricane Gilbert’s arrival seemed to drag along. She recalls being a little girl and eavesdropping on conversations that the adults around her were having. The town she lived in was just outside of where Hurricane Gilbert would be doing its worst damage. She knew this because her parents ensured her that despite what other kids at school were telling her about how terrible the hurricane would be, they would be fine. In the U.S., people often receive hurricane warnings and are given access to resources that will help them prepare. When asked, Tameika said that she could not even recall buying extra food. At the time, her family had animals of their own, so the only preparation that was made was bringing in the goats and cows into the barn. During my discussion with Tameika, she stated that her siblings had enjoyed the night, but this was only because they could not actually comprehend what the hurricane would have in store for others. 

Hurricane Gilbert spanned the entire length of Jamaica.

The afternoon that Hurricane Gilbert hit, Tameika, her older brother and her younger sister went to the roof of their house. They had never experienced a storm like this, and thought it’d be fun to play in the rain. She vividly recalled the zinc flying around in the sky as she played with her siblings in the rain. The three siblings played in the rain on the roof and in the backyard until it got too dark and they went inside. They went inside that night without knowing how much the hurricane’s activities would impact them. That night, Hurricane Gilbert ravished the entire length of the island of Jamaica, resulting in over 50 deaths. 

Ruined police station post Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.

Jamaica was in despair after Hurricane Gilbert passed over the island. Houses were destroyed, electricity was lost, and water supplies for some became contaminated. Tameika recalls experiencing lack of electricity in her town; for her as a little girl, that meant that her and her siblings couldn’t play for as long as they were used to and bedtime was just earlier. Ms. Halliman discussed with me how she had a fear of the dark as a young girl and that was exacerbated during this time period. She discussed feelings of betrayal from her parents; they had told her that Hurricane Gilbert would not do any damage to them, but here she was experiencing the damage. Tameika recounted memories of sitting on her roof and looking down at the town below them that lay in ruin. The news reports surrounding Hurricane Gilbert documented the extensive damages that the island suffered. Over 100,000 homes were damaged, water and electricity supplies were damaged and many healthcare centers were damages as a result of Hurricane Gilbert passing along the length of Jamaica. 

Over thirty years have passed since Hurricane Gilbert struck the island of Jamaica. Tameika has since relocated to the United States and has started a family of her own. However, she has not shed the entirety of the trauma that she gained since experiencing Hurricane Gilbert. Though her immediate family didn’t feel what she called “devastating effects” of the hurricane, there were traumatic aftershocks that she endured. Examples that she gave me ranged from losing extended family members to losing her favorite teacher at school. Tameika also recalls family members from Kingston coming to stay with her for various ranges of time. Though these things at the time didn’t seem like a big deal, as an adult she often recognizes how the trauma has impacted her.

Image of ruins downhill after Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.

Interestingly, while in discussion with Tameika, she stated that whenever there is a hurricane warning in NYC, she makes herself over prepared each time. When she experienced Hurricane Sandy a few years back, she stockpiled canned goods, invited family members living close to water to stay with her and ensured that her landlord have a backup power generator. Because of where she lived, none of these precautions were necessary and no one directly related to her felt any “devastating” impacts. However, it just goes to show that trauma can be long standing. From Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Tameika Halliman has continued to work through the trauma that comes with being a disaster survivor. 

Hurricane Sandy Survivor Profile Piece

Hurricane Sandy was classified as a Category 3 hurricane and categorized as the deadliest hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic Hurricane season. Hurricane Maria was classified as a Category 5 hurricane and also regarded as the worst natural disaster to affect Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. FEMA also known as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, responds to these types of natural disasters and provides aid for those in need. I’m going to compare some similarities and differences between the two hurricanes and how FEMA responded to each.

Image result for hurricane sandy nyc

I decided to interview one of my good friends Robin Christopher Santos. He used to live in the Far Rockaways up until Hurricane Sandy wrecked his home. Robin was just in the 8th grade at the time. He didn’t really understand the magnitude of a hurricane, to him it was just another rainstorm. It wasn’t until the storm hit, that Robin and his family would face the effects of Sandy. Interviewing Robin gave me an inside look from someone who was affected by a hurricane. This allowed me to compare and contrast Hurricane Sandy with 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

Something I noticed about the two hurricanes were the effects they had on the people who lived in the vicinity of the hurricane. In both cases, lives were lost, property was damaged, and power outages took place. In 2012, Robin and his family were living in an apartment, paying rent monthly. When Hurricane Sandy hit, their entire floor as well as many of their belongings were destroyed. “It was like something out of a movie… I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing. Everything my family had was gone within the hour”, Robin said. Victims of hurricane Maria had also suffered the same anguish. Their houses were destroyed, their loved ones lost, and their basic essentials to survive were scarce. Marta Rivera, a literal survivor of hurricane Maria, says “My home is at the bottom of a hill here in Arecibo. When the hurricane came there was a big wave and we had to be rescued from the home; it was destroyed”. Both were victims of each hurricane. 

With similarities come differences. Though Sandy and Maria were both hurricanes, they each impacted their victims in different ways and with different levels of severity. Not only was that different, but the way FEMA and other aid/relief  services responded to both events was different as well. Robin tells me about how he got his electricity back fairly quick, and how his landlord received aid checks from FEMA and was able to start fixing the damages. This greatly differs from how FEMA reacted to hurricane Maria. People in Puerto Rico didn’t have electricity for months and some for almost two years. According to an article by the New York Times, it was said that FEMA was sorely unprepared for Puerto Rico’s hurricane Maria. The writer Frances Robles, said “And when the killer storm did come, FEMA’s warehouse in Puerto Rico was nearly empty, its contents rushed to aid the United States Virgin Islands, which were hammered by another storm two weeks before. There was not a single tarpaulin or cot left in stock.” This just shows us how lagged the aid victims of Puerto Rico received was. People were without electricity, fresh food and water, improper shelter, the basic necessities of life and FEMA was lacking the necessary resources to help these people. FEMA exists for these types of situations and though they didn’t completely ignore Puetro Rico, I strongly feel like they could have done much more to help the victims.

Image result for hurricane sandy nyc

After interviewing Robin and hearing his story, I realized how different FEMA acted towards both Hurricanes and the geographical places they affected. I also got an inside look and a better understanding of what victims of natural disasters go through.  I also realized how many of the problems could have been avoided if FEMA was prepared. Personally I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for Robin and survivors of natural disasters.

A RECOLLECTION OF MEXICO’S EARTHQUAKES

On the 19th of September 1985, Mexico City suffered an 8.0 magnitude earthquake. At around 7:17 AM the violent earthquake interrupted the usual mornings of Mexico City’s morning rush. The 1985 earthquake was the deadliest earthquake in Mexico’s history, the estimated number of deaths is 5,000 people. Mexico City is a city built on the remains of an Aztec empire Tenochtitlán, over a massive lake called Texcoco. Because of Mexico City’s geography earthquakes are not only prone to happen but they are exacerbated by the construction of the city. Mexico is located on a subduction zone, the oceanic plate Cocos is gradually sinking beneath the North American continental plate.

The memory of the 1985 earthquake lives on through the generation that experienced it, Paz Luna and Juventino were in Mexico at the time of the earthquake. Currently, they both live in New York City with their families. Paz experienced the earthquake in a small town an hour away from the City and Juventino lived in the City with at the time his ex-wife.

Luna’s family was affected vastly by the 1985 earthquake, although they were not in Mexico City they were closer to the epicenter. When the earthquake hit nearby Luna and her family first heard the dog’s of the town crying. They sensed the earthquake before Luna’s family realized it. When they felt the earthquake, Luna recalls that it felt as if a massive wave was underneath them. Luna tells that her and her family all threw themselves onto the floor belly side down somehow this was reassuring to them.

“Se escuchaban los ladrillos de los perros bien feo, y se sientia como una ollá, que se mueve arriba y abajo. ” – Paz

Many of Luna’s family lost their homes or had their homes fractured during the seconds that it lasted. Earthquakes have the main shock that is usually higher rated in the Richter magnitude scale and then they naturally have aftershocks that are smaller. The local government gave few resources in 1985, for Luna’s family this meant they only received material to build up or fix the houses. How they build up the houses was left to them, the government only provided bare minimum of material like cement, bricks, and rods. Luna’s father was forced to hire nearby construction workers to rebuild his house.

” El Gobierno nos dio materiales para reconstruir las casas como el cemento, barillas, tabique, alambron. Tambien nos dieron cosas como cobijas a los del pueblo.” – Paz

Juventino was in Mexico City 20 minutes from the most devastated area. In his neighborhood, he recalls that everyone was terrified when the earthquake hit and its a feeling he does not forget. The entire city had just finished an earthquake drill when a few hours later the real thing occurred. He remembers the ground shaking violently, his family rushed out of the building. Outside there were neighbors on the ground, children were crying and no one was aware of the terrifying scene just miles from where they were standing.

Vehicles sit covered in debris in downtown Mexico City after earthquake, Sept. 19, 1985. (AP Photo)

Paz recalls the earthquake vividly especially after the last earthquake of 2017. Peculiarly the earthquake of 2017 struck on the same day September 19th as the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. Two years ago the 2017 earthquake was 7.1 magnitude, the devastation it left in Mexico reflects the ghost of the 1985 earthquake. The similarities don’t just stop on the same day, both earthquakes reflect the inadequacy of the Mexican government to help its people out during times of disasters. As the picture below demonstrates, normal citizens were left to pick up the piles of rubbish that has fallen from the buildings. This all in the effort of finding people alive below the rubbish and dirt.

Luna’s family was affected by the 2017 earthquake as well because the epicenter was just miles away from her hometown where her father and aunts reside. Luna describes the church of her hometown collapsing, she says that as of today the government has still to rebuild the church. The community was advised that it would be a while before they reconstruct the church due to the long waitlist. The 2017 earthquake lets the world and Mexican citizens know that the government has yet to change the methods in lack of resources for natural disasters. Luna says that the community of her town had to build a small “capilla” for the saints that hung in the church, before that someone had to stay with the sculptures and paintings so that they were not stolen.

“Contruyeron la capilla y ahi estan los santitos…dicen que hay una grande lista para que vengan a arreglar la iglesia.” – Paz

Paz Interview

Recovery, Mental Health and Immigration Status

How are the 3 connected?

Images from both the 2010 earthquake of Haiti and the barren streets of NYC during Hurricane Sandy

When interviewing earthquake survivor Giovanni Roy, he seemed to be indifferent to speaking about his experiences. No part of him was reluctant to share information, but no part of him spoke as if he wanted to relive it.

Giovanni came here almost 10 years ago in early February on a cold NYC winter day, with nothing but a jean jacket after having to pass through the Dominican Republic and Miami, Florida. Not to mention, he came in the middle of the academic school year.10 years later, he is a 24-year-old student at Hunter College living under TPS (Temporary Protected Status). Giovanni is a member of the Haitian Student Association of Hunter College and has been for a few years now. Many of his peers refer to him as “Gio” and he is usually known for his boastfulness and pride in beating anyone at dominoes and his love for food. To the naked eye, it seems that he has successfully transitioned into living in the United States, but what is hidden is his experience of living through a disaster.

Giovanni, his uncle, cousin and elder sister pictured celebrating New Years Eve

The earthquake of Haiti in 2010, was a life-changing event for Gio. He was around 14 at the time when he said that the second floor of his building became the first. When interviewing him, I asked how he was doing because I think not many people get asked that question enough with serious intent. He replied: I feel amazing and I’m in a lovely relationship. That cheery attitude soon diminished when I started asking questions about his trauma with the incident.

“I didn’t believe it until I saw the people that I knew that were dead, I was just crying”

The issue of PTSD and other forms of trauma are not the only issues victims face but are the most talked-about issue. Varying forms of trauma may or may not be easily identifiable depending on the person. When I asked if he had taken any measures to seek help in processing his trauma his view on it was negative, but I don’t blame him because it is what he truly felt. He said “That would change nothing. It happened. They aren’t coming back to life are they?” Giovanni explained to me that the entirety of the disaster felt unreal, like a dream. He said he only began to understand things when he saw the dead bodies of loved ones.

This feeling of disconnecting completely from the disaster itself is a form of disassociation.

This is “a psychological experience in which people feel disconnected from their sensory experience, sense of self, or personal history. … Dissociation often occurs in response to trauma and seems to have a protective aspect in that it allows people to feel disconnected from traumatic events.”

https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-dissociation-22201

Not only is trauma and issue that Giovanni has to face. Another problem for him is his immigration status. He is under something called “Temporary Protective Status” others refer to it as being under asylum. “It’s biased, the wait is long, almost a year long.” He explains that maintaining employment in the period that it takes to get it is long and difficult, and he could be let go at any moment. He also explained that as a college student, this status didn’t provide him with any sort of Financial aid to fund his studies. Now in 2019, Giovanni works full time, over 40 hours a week and is a part-time student who also has to pay rent.

As a New Yorker, I only had a small taste of what a disaster was when Hurricane Sandy hit. I only realized the gravity of this disaster when I learned the next week at school that my earth science teacher, Jennifer Rondello-Dixon’s house was completely destroyed. Not only did this teacher go through such a grave disaster for where she lives but she had to continue coming to school to teach every single day without showing that she was struggling back home.

Jennifer sent a photo marking how high the water had reached in her house showing over a foot of flooding

Jennifer was born and raised in Queens, NY and had moved to Far Rockaway in later years. When I had Mrs. Dixon as a teacher she was then known as Ms. Rondello. I was her student during her transition from fiancee to wife. When asked about how her daily routine was before Sandy hit she simply stated: “My daily routine is still the same as it was when sandy hit 7 years ago… I wake up and go to work as a science teacher before coming home, cooking, cleaning and sleeping (though now I also have tyler to take care of.)” Though my interview with her was short and brief over Facebook messenger, I had a feeling she was typing this with the positive, warming smile that I knew her to always have.

Jennifer made it clear to me that her mental health was also taken into consideration. “Mental health is super important” she stated. I have known her to be one of the few teachers that students spoke to her about their personal lives and have even confided in her with my own self so this is almost an understatement in her terms. “Unlike Giovanni, Jennifer had a therapist but the natural disaster wasn’t something they discussed. “I leaned mostly on family and friends,” she said, stating that they were her main source of support during the recovery and relief efforts.

Photos of the relief efforts provided to Jennifer and others by neighbors and friends

One thing that struck me the most was the photos Jennifer had sent me. There were tons of pictures fo her earth science books, regents preparation books and etc. I knew that Jennifer was a passionate teacher so I’m sure that these books had sentimental value to her.

In Jennifer’s case, she stated that her mindset on life had changed. Though she did struggle a bit, she was able to make a big decision with her now-husband. I asked her how this disaster has changed her family dynamic and received such a beautiful answer. Jennifer said, “Sandy definitely affected my family dynamic because we decided to have Tyler (her son) after we bought our home because we realized how fragile life is.”

In a sense, Jennifer was able to see the positive of this event and start her family. She was able to come out of this situation with her family, friends, and neighbors by her side.

What Maria was to Luis Miranda

Hurricane Maria was devastating to many Puerto Ricans, even those not on the island at the time. Luis Miranda Jr. (father of Lin-Manuel Miranda), co-founder and managing partner of the MirRam Group, (a government affair, lobbying, and political consulting firm), was in New York when Maria touched down. Luis had been in contact with his family in Vega Alta Puerto Rico for all of the week before, “there was radio silence” as he said when Maria passed. For 10 days neither Luis or his son Lin could get in contact with their family on the island. Like many Puerto Ricans that were outside of the island, Luis found out that a member of his family, his brother, was okay and alive through social media. A picture posted by his cousin that lived in Jacksonville Florida had his brother in it. He remembers strongly his first contact with anyone on the island. It wasn’t even to his direct family, it was to a childhood friend who informed him that his parent’s house, the house he grew up in and was raised in, was gone, the hurricane had taken it with many other houses in his barrio of Maricao, Vega Alta. 

Luis’ biggest fear in all of this was that his family would get sick. “…without electricity, water rising everywhere, with no medical equipment, getting sick wasn’t an option”. This was a common fear throughout people on and off the island. People that were ill and sick prior to Maria had their fate sealed by it, without power and being isolated from help many of them succumbed to their illness. Luis knew that this could easily happen to his family. This was a large contributor to the death count of Maria. Many deaths could have been prevented by being prepared for the devastation that the hurricane brought and being ready to provide aid to those who need it most. Luis said, “of course natural disasters affect poor differently,” and we see this difference as bright as day in Puerto Rico. This article highlights the disparities in aid received between Houston after Hurricane Harvey and Puerto Rico after Maria. Despite the similarities in physical devastation that both natural disasters caused, both FEMA and the U.S. government sent billions more to aid Harvey survivors than to aid Maria survivors. This is compounded and made worse by the fact that the infrastructure in Puerto Rico was much worse than in Houston and more money would have been needed to help and rebuild in Puerto Rico. Poorer communities are hit harder by natural disasters cause of this fact. The little they have in infrastructure and disaster provisions make it that much more difficult to bounce back after natural disasters. 

Luis is a large activist for Latinos and with both his son and the MirRam group he has very powerful connections. He used these connections to get help as quickly as he could to not only his family but his barrio. At the time his son Lin wrote a song to raise awareness and funds to help the people in Puerto Rico and Luis himself was coordinating help with the major of New York. The park department of New York was able to lend some workers to clear up debris like fallen trees as well as mudslides. Luis also got supplies from camping stores with major one criteria for whatever he got, it had to be solar powered as he did not want to have the issue that batteries would bring. With supplies and people ready all Luis need was a way to get them to the island. The obvious solution to this was private planes. With planes lent to him from friends and friends of friends, Luis was able to finally get to the island and Vega Alta after 10 days.

After the initial few weeks of the hurricane, Luis had to come back to continue his work with the MirRam group and everything else in his life. It was after being back the Luis got to see the media coverage of Puerto Rico as well as the response of the U.S. government. “I was comfortable that the media was covering Puerto Rico and what was happening … Trump was a totally different thing and the lack of aid to Puerto Rico from the federal government is a totally different animal.” Luis believed that the media was being clear in showing how Hurricane Maria devastated the island. He was “pissed” at how unprepared the federal government was to handle Maria and could not understand how provisions were not made before the hurricane. All predictions of the hurricane were right and it wasn’t something of a surprise when it made landfall, isolation could have been prevented. “To add insult to injury,” Luis said, “not only was the federal government not ready but this Buffon, this clown, (Donald Trump), goes to Puerto Rico for a photo op.” This was in reference to Trump going to Puerto Rico 14 after hurricane Maria, and throwing the infamous paper towel into a crowd. This whole event was the manifestation of the incompetence of the federal government to help during and after Hurricane Maria. To this day, there are still many people feeling the effects of Maria and this incompetent government. Luis says “… what hits you the most as you’re getting to Puerto Rico in a plane is the amount of blue tarps…” These are blue tarps that are still up from the initial aid from FEMA and others to provide shelter to people. They are still being used by people that have nowhere else to go. More could have and should have been done

Looking into the future of Puerto Rico, Luis is “optimistically cautious.” He sees the pockets of change that can lead to something bigger. Hurricane Maria Exposed a lot of the systemic issues that Puerto Rico is dealing with. In Luis’ words “ Puerto Rico has been living with borrowed money, borrowed time, in a fantasy world…” Puerto Rico has 74 billion-dollar debt that was made worse by the hurricane. Wall Street banks pushed the government to keep taking out loans at ridiculous rates that it could never payback. Even with the money, it was taken out, it was not going back into the infrastructure and the communities of Puerto Rico. Not only were the power station and the electrical grid poorly taken care of but, “Water pumping stations, bridges, levees, roads — all had been starved for investment for years.” Puerto Rican people have only seen their island mishandled and exploited and the aftermath of Maria has been the last straw.

Facing Maria

A natural disaster can affect a person more profoundly than the superficial things we see. When thinking about a natural disaster, we tend to think about the mundane damage or the genetic damage it does to a place. What we tend to forget is that a natural disaster will take a person and not only wreck the environment around them but will also wreck them internally. Natural disasters lead people to become overwhelmed with different types of emotions because they know that the life they once had, has been turned upside down and destroyed. Puerto Rico has been that island that has been affected by many hurricanes, which have devastated the island multiple times. Over the years, Puerto Ricans have been able to develop a strong backbone when it comes to natural disasters and reconstruction. The people on the island have experienced many hardships while being neglected help from the United States, which have led them to develop a strong character or face when facing things like a category four hurricane. What many don’t get to see behind those firm faces is the hurt and emotional distress Puerto Ricans are dealing with behind closed doors. Today, I choose to interview a friend who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but like many was affected and pushed out of Puerto Rico. 

My friend Norman was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He came to the United States when he was 21 years old. When meeting him for the first time, you can tell he is an island boy, like some like to call it. He wears Puerto Rico around him, loud and proud. After knowing him for a couple of years, he finally explained to me how he never truly wanted to come to the United States but was forced to because of the economic hardships he faced while living in Puerto Rico. He said during the interview, “Yo me tube que ir, Porque la cosa en Puerto Rico en realmente estaban muy mal.” He elaborated that he knew that after finishing college, leaving the island was his only choice because he knew that even after completing his degree, the possibilities of him attaining a job in his field was very low.

Additionally, he also mentioned that the minimum wage in 2015 was about 5 or 6 dollars, depending on where you worked. Norman knew that it wasn’t enough for him to sustain himself, let alone support his family. I asked him how has his life changed after he came to the United States, and he responded to me that he’d been faced with many challenges like language barriers, becoming financially stable, leaving his family in Puerto Rico. He said, “I had to do it for myself, me sentí muy mal dejando a mi madre allá pero ella me empujo para que yo tomara la decisión que yo hice.” He didn’t want to leave his mother because he knew he was all she had. Norman said to me that growing up, he knew that they didn’t have much but that his mom always put a strong face for both of them and still found a way to give him what he needed. 

Moreover, I asked him to give me a comparison of his life on the island and his life here in the United States. He told me that he hated it here and that at times would get to a point where he just wanted to go back home. “Here is depressing, en Puerto Rico yo podía estar afuera todo el dia, Y la comida, la comida no se compara.” When he mentioned to me about feeling homesick, I related to him a lot, because I wasn’t born here either, and at times I do miss back home. This quote he said brought me back to space where I remember just playing outside all day and my grandmother’s cooking.

Furthermore, he described to me that his everyday routine has changed from doing multiple things in a day to work and then go home. Now, I brought back the conversation to my focal point which was the economic crisis in Puerto Rico and what it has done over the years to the island, I asked him about the crisis and how it impacted his life and the lives of the people around him. He answered by saying “Hay mucha corrupción en Puerto Rico, hay mucha corrupción aquí también solamente que allá le toca peor. allá nosotros tenemos que hacer lo que sea para sobrevivir because you know at the end of the day life keeps going and you either move with it or stay behind.” This statement to me was the most powerful in the interview because I could see how even though his whole experience changed his life and well change him, he didn’t let it break him. 

Lastly, I touched on how hurricane Maria affected his life recently. He expressed to me that when it happened, he was devastated and highly concerned because when it happened, he was living here while his whole family was back home. He said that at that very moment, he felt helpless. “I couldn’t call my mom to find out if she was okay because the power was out. I didn’t know if our house was destroyed.” Norman explained that he was able to get in contact with one of his uncles, which told him that his mom was now staying them. A month after, his mom ended up having to come to the United States until their house in Puerto Rico was able to be repaired. He mentioned that there wasn’t a lot of significant damages but just broken windows, doors, and a flood. However, when he was telling me this, I could how hard that must have been for him. Now not only did he have to take care of himself but his mother as well, which is very difficult if you live in New York City while working in a retail job. “Ella tuvo que gastar sus savings, fue muy duro para ella dejar todo y venir aquí. Nueva York es una cultura diferente que ella no conoce bien, so it was a real adjustment for her at first”. He stated that she went back home in like three months because she had a family to stay with over there, but he said that in many people’s case it wasn’t that easy and that he knew that some had to migrate over here without knowing when they would be able to return home. He said to me, moving over here after living your whole life there is like losing a part of yourself. Similarly, saying that although people like me do it to give ourselves a chance to have a better experience, it is not as easy as some paint it. Having to be pushed out of Puerto Rico due to a financial crisis or because of a hurricane can impact a person far more profound than it would ever affect them materialistically. 

This interview grounded me. It allowed me to step in the world of someone who has been affected not only by a financial crisis of territory but as well someone who has been affected by a natural disaster. Norman’s story I feel moved me because when first meeting or even knowing him years after, I never really knew how deep everything happening on the island affected him. Like most Puerto Ricans, he put on his brave face and continue to move forward. Although he loves his island very much, he says that he doesn’t see himself going back unless the situation in Puerto Rico becomes better. The emotions one faces when going through a traumatic experience like this is not understandable if all you know is what the media feed us. An experience like this is never genuinely mediatized correctly. The emotional distress or the stories of the people who were affected by it is never shown in media outlets unless it is benefitting the news station airing it. I am glad more people are joining together to publicize the real stories occurring today in Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane Maria. 

Surviving Natural Disasters; How the system failed Jamaica.

Image result for hurricane gilbert jamaica

Hurricane Gilbert was a hurricane that occurred during the 1988 Hurricane season. It is the most destructive storm in history to hit the small island of Jamaica. On September 12th, 1988 the winds reached 175 miles per hour, making Gilbert a category 5 hurricane. Gilbert had a 40-mile wide eye that covered the island. About 80% of homes were seriously damaged and 500,000 people of the 2 million on the island were left homeless. Almost all homes lost electricity and more than 200 people lost their lives. Hurricane Gilbert caused over $700 million dollars (USD) in damage to the island of Jamaica. Growing up, I always heard the name Gilbert floating around, I would always say, “Who’s Gilbert”, I had no idea I had a relative named Gilbert. It would always be thrown around in conversation usually by my mother, “Dis nuh suh bad as Gilbert.”, “Itta rain bad like Suh it rain home inna Gilbert.”. I never mustered up the courage to ask my mother what Gilbert was and why she always was talking about Gilbert until about 3 years ago and her response was “Hurricane Gilbert happened when I was growing up”. I never questioned my mom on how bad it was, or how it affected her. It wasn’t until I had to do this assignment interviewing a survivor of natural disaster that I realized my mother was always talking about Gilbert and it had affected her to a point in which she constantly references it. I decided to interview my mother when given the opportunity to do so. She is the survivor of a natural disaster, one that she so frequently references, as it has traumatized her. My mother was 15 years old when Hurricane Gilbert had hit the island. She lived in the country area of Jamaica, in a house that all her siblings were birthed in and that my grandfather still lives in today. I asked her what it sounded like and how it looked outside and she recalled it vividly, her face blank almost as if she had numbed herself to remembering the storm, She recalled it as,

“Scary, winds were like a person making a really scary noise. The winds roared like a lion. Looking through the window. It was pitch dark, everything was dark. It came in the night and all you could hear was the rain pouring. The house was wet, almost flooded and part of the roof was gone.” My mother recalled to me that her family was already close but  “During the night of the hurricane, we stayed together, we slept in one bed.”

Image result for hurricane gilbert jamaica

It wasn’t rare in my mother’s childhood that she had shared the bed with her siblings because there wasn’t room for each person to have individual personal space. She spoke about Hurricane Gilbert bringing her family closer, although the storm wreaked havoc, she was still positive and able to see the good of what the storm had done. Similar to Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico where the storm had brought neighbors closer and allowed the people within the community to be open with others, my mother recalled a similar experience. During the interview, she said, “We were always close with our neighbors, the neighbor’s house got damaged totally, they stayed in our house for a while until they could repair their house.” During times of trouble, struggle or natural disaster, it is human nature to be able to lend a helping hand and ask for help if needed. It is times like this when you have nothing or seeing others struggle it will open your heart to helping others around you and not forgetting the kind act of others giving when you had nothing allows you to pay it forward to the ones that aren’t so fortunate. It was so bad that the prime minister of Jamaica reportedly said that eastern Jamaica looked “like Hiroshima after the atom bomb”, the hurricane ruined crops, which is a substantial part of Jamaica’s economy, buildings, roads, and small aircraft. It’s a government’s job to supply and help their people during times of disaster, similar to the inadequacy of the Puerto Rican government after maria, the Jamaican government responded poorly to the aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert. My mother recalled that it took months to get aid, the roads were terribly damaged, there was no public transportation and infrastructure that had been washed away. My mother also recalled that hearing about what happened in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria reminded her of how corrupt the government of Jamaica is, she told me that after Gilbert, the government took the resources and aid for themselves and also sold part of it for profit. The coverage of the storm was not as it should’ve been, my mother recounted that the media covered Hurricane Gilbert terribly, and even doing my own research there were little articles that had to do with Gilbert’s effect on Jamaica.

Video on damage in Jamaica

Song inspired by Gilbert

Surviving Hurricane Sandy

Hurricanes do not discriminate when it comes to where they to hit or the amount destruction they cause. In some cases, hurricanes do more damage in one area than another for several reason. This can be due to the intensity of the storm or in many cases the preparedness of a country or region to resist damages from a storm. There have been cases where a category three storm does more damage to location X than a category five hurricane does to location Y.  The reason for this in many cases is infrastructure and the resources available to the people for recovery. 

I interviewed an old classmate of mine named Phil Lukach on Thursday October the 31st. Phil and his family live on Staten Island and lived through hurricane sandy. I figured interviewing someone who lived through hurricane Sandy would be a great way to compare different aspects between what happened in United States with Sandy and in Puerto Rico with hurricane Maria.  

From the interview I noticed there were many similarities and differences between the two. In both case people lost access to electricity. The difference was that people on Staten Island where able to get their power back within several hours or days if you live up North. Some people in Southshore had to wait one or two months and these were the extreme case. As mentioned by Phil “The power went out for a couple hours. Most people around me did not get power back for several days. People in the South of the Island had it the worse some people did not get their power back for several weeks”. In Puerto Rico I know it took people months and even years in many cases before people received electricity again. Phil said his family was lucky that they only had to wait a few hours before getting power back his neighbors across the street had to wait two days. Phil Spoke on how the very next day he saw electric companies working on the grid, the same cannot be said by people in Puerto Rico who had to wait weeks. 

In terms of damages his home suffered some damages inside and in the backyard. A substantially large tree branch from the tree in his backyard fell on the deck and destroyed the table and parts of the deck. Wind damaged several of the shingles on the roof. Some flooding occurred in his basement and damaged some items they had stored there. He also spoke on how some homes were destroyed and had much more damages for friends and relatives who lived in Southshore. He said “I felt so bad seeing the destruction the storm caused in Staten Island and Brooklyn. Couple of my friends who lived in SouthShore had to evacuate and homes had to rebuild because they suffered heavy damages”. He spoke on how after few months people fixed their homes with help from the government. 

Phil spoke on how several people he knew received help from FEMA and that is why they were able to repair issues quickly. This reminds me of Puerto Rico and how horrible of a job FEMA did when it came to helping people.  This is also evident from the fact that within first ten days of hurricane Harvey and Irma FEMA sent 100 million dollars to help regions effected but within the same time frame only sent 6 million dollars to Puerto Rico to help with hurricane Maria. This is shown in the figure from below.  The discrepancy in money allotted only got worse as time passed.

From the interview I notice that Phil and his family went through similar troubles during hurricane sandy has people did in Puerto Rico during hurricane Maria. A few significant differences were the infrastructure in place and the help received after the hurricane. Many homes in Puerto Rico were destroyed due to strong winds. The homes were not built strong enough to withstand these winds speed usually because of funds and materials available to build homes in the first place. The electric grid is one of the main differences. As we studied in class the electric grid in Puerto Rico is in bad shape and faces corruption often instead of repairs. This alone cause thousands of people to surfer and many to die. In Staten Island most people received energy back within a few days and for some extreme case a month. This shows us that when it comes to hurricanes what causes most damage is not having proper infrastructure and not having enough resources. 

Understanding a Survivor through Hurricane Maria

I interviewed my great aunt Virginia Rivera who was living in Caguas, Puerto Rico at the time of Hurricane Maria. Some of the things that stood out to me in her response were the aspects of the hurricanes outcomes that went unnoticed when discussing natural disaster in a greater context. When speaking about any type of disaster that impacts many people, it’s easier for the media to form a broader narrative so that the survivors may fit under a common story. News outlets may focus on larger angles such as physical damage and political action because it’s an easier narrative to tell. By doing this, many minor details that may seem irrelevant are left out, but these small parts of survivor’s lives are actually far from insignificant. For outsiders who are trying to grasp an understanding of disasters, this practice of generalizing detains them from truly learning the multitude of impact. There are certain outlooks of a disaster that the media often can’t portray. It was intriguing to speak with Virginia and learn some facts about Maria that were never brought to my attention beforehand. 

Virginia Rivera

Before the storm, Virginia lived a simple routine based life. She was retired and living with her mother, Zenaida. Her daily routine called for activities like grocery shopping, cooking, and being a caregiver to her mom. After the storm this routine was put on halt, and her primary concern became Zenaida’s health. At the time, her mother was just shy of her nineties. While Zenaida was not in critical condition beforehand, she did undergo some sickness that comes with old age. With lack of power, Zenaida struggled through a vulnerable state that became dangerous for her. “She fell and her arm was all black! It was bad,” Virginia exclaimed. While she felt okay about herself, Virginia knew for her mother, the storm would leave her severely ill. With lack of medicine and functioning hospitals, the darkening of Zenaida’s bruised skin was a negative sign for them. 

Luckily, Virginia’s physical house wasn’t completely destroyed. This would leave Virginia and Zenaida in a slightly better circumstance than those who completely lost their properties. Virginia mentioned how she took in some people to live with her because their homes were destroyed, and she had many rooms to spare. She explained to me how the houses with cement ceilings had a slightly stronger infrastructure as opposed to the wooden ones. Virginia described the roof of her sisters house right next to hers, “Juanita had a wood ceiling. It was thin, and that just went!” Meanwhile, Virginia’s cement ceiling only received a few cracks as opposed to being completely gone like Juanita’s. Although, Virginia’s place became a shelter for another family, the house was far from perfect.

Virginia’s house received a lot of water damage that came in through the windows and doors, damaging the furniture and clothing. “We were up all night, fighting the water, sweeping the water,” she affirmed. Without clean water, it was hard for her to wash and dry everything that was soiled by the storm. On top of that, the electricity was cut out in her home for ten months. She explained how in Caguas the light’s wires were not underground like the telephone and cable wires were. Adding how the above ground wires caused problems in the past, where she would lose light once or twice a month. Those who came to repair the lights fixed it to exactly how it was before, so Virginia knew it would continue to cause problems in the future. 

One interesting aspect to learn about was her inflatable pool on the side of her house. She turned it into a vessel to hold leftover rain and flood water that she would use to help clean things or flush the toilet. Basic plumbing is easily taken for granted until it’s not a luxury anymore. The idea of using unclean water to wash things or pour water into the toilet, just to get rid of human waste, is unnerving. Not to mention the never-ending swarms of mosquitoes. “They were bugging you, all day, all night,” she sighed. It is easy to never have to think about such things, until they happen. Nevertheless Virginia had standing walls for the people residing inside.

An inflatable pool in Virginia’s porch

 While her home’s structure was fairly okay, it was everything around her that crumbled. Virginia shared her story of persistence and community, although she would hardly call it that. She described how her neighbors came together with electric saws and machetes to clear away debris from the main road that they shared. Living in the mountains, they didn’t have alternative routes. Surprisingly, Virginia described how the salt water “burned” everything and moved around the trees and garbage. Together, her neighbors helped each other remove fallen trees and chunks of damage from the road, so that one or two cars would be able to pass. “Everybody putting in their weight… The road was clean within a week,” she said proudly. However, she doesn’t describe this sense of community as a newfound result from the storm. Virginia believes that everyone in Puerto Rico is super friendly, talking to each other all the time. “It’s because they’re nosy,” she jokes. Virginia acted as a cook for the neighbors who helped her and the family living with her. Her lights were not reliable, but at least she had a gas stove that didn’t require electricity. Again however, cooking for everyone wasn’t anything new for her. “Oh yeah! I always do that,” she laughed. 

Outside Virginia’s home in Caguas, Puerto Rico

The impact Maria had on Virginia stretched beyond her home, and out towards other areas of Caguas. It is no secret that after the storm there was a desperation for necessities. Stores and gas stations had extremely long lines, with scarce amounts of supplies. Virgina says she had to travel pretty far to reach Walmart and gas stations, and spent about four to six hours waiting to buy water, gas and ice. She emphasized the need for ice because there was no electricity at all. One fact that surprised me was how there were number limits set up in these stores. Virginia described the experience saying they let in about twenty people at a time, and some parts of the store were so dark that employees carried flashlights. “People were with you in the section wherever you wanted to go. There was a restriction as to how many stuff you could buy,” Virginia accounted, “whatever it is, there was always a little piece of paper stating how many you could buy per person.” This is frustrating when considering how outsider donations were often withheld from the government. Then again, it was difficult for the people in charge to run a fair system of recovery throughout the island. 

People like Virginia received no aid from the government. She explained the only form of aid was FEMA, and they denied her application because, again, her house was cement and most of the damage happened to wooden houses. She added, “They went out for the ones that were really bad, and I wasn’t one of them.” When asked about her expectations with aid she responded, “I did have some expectations!” She sounded almost shocked, almost. With no help from the government, Virginia’s family sent her a generator. Although she admitted the generator was costly, having to pay $25 a day to use it. Still, she considers herself one of the lucky ones.

The impact of Maria didn’t end within the borders of Puerto Rico. Displacement is a result for many survivors of a disaster who struggle to rebuild and regain control over their former life routines. While the personal narratives of many Puerto Rican’s send them to various other locations, Virginia’s story was pushed to New York. Fortunately this was quite alright to her. “I love my New York!” She laughed, explaining how she was raised there. Even though she was born in Puerto Rico, she lived her life going back and forth. This was just another one of those times, but for forced reasons. 

Virginia had to bring her mother, Zenaida somewhere where she can be comfortable and monitored safely. With most of their family residing in New York, her sister Gladys’ home in the Bronx was the best answer. For Virginia this was just a pit stop on the road to recovery, but it would be far more serious for her mother. “She wanted to go back to Puerto Rico. She said it all the time.” She recalled the final days of Zenaida’s life, stuck in the living room of a cold inner city home, compared to her days in Puerto Rico. “She liked to go outside, look at the flowers, come back in, come back out. It’s different than being in a small apartment.” Zenaida passed away, still trapped in the living room of Gladys’ home in New York. Her flight back home was booked for just a few days after, but she would never make it back home.

(From left to right) Juanita, Gladys, and Zenaida

It is important to consider Virginia as a voice of a survivor. Like many other survivors in Puerto Rico, Virginia often undermined her own struggles and story. She believed she didn’t fit into a certain category of victim-hood and felt she was offering disappointing answers. The fact is, I was not looking for specific answers. I was genuinely curious about my great aunt’s personal experience of Hurricane Maria. With Virginia, and many others like her, their truth is what drives hope through recovery. Speaking with her, I learned some characteristics about natural disasters that I was not able to comprehend beforehand. Bringing personal narratives into the foreground is an important practice when raising awareness for disasters. For Virginia, I wish to tell her story and have her recognized as a true survivor of Hurricane Maria. 

Journey After a Hurricane

From October 22 to November 2 of 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States in catastrophic and destructive ways. Sandy hit New York October 29, 2012 leaving homes destroyed and the metropolitan area in shock. One of the neighborhoods that had severe damages was Breezy Point. Breezy Point is a beach town in Queens, it’s a tiny peninsula with a large community filled with heart and love. When the storm hit breezy, electrical fires were caused burning down hundreds of homes, the bodies of ocean that surround this small community engulfed the peninsula. As a consequence, nearly every home was affected and needed re-building. One of the homes effected, belonged to Owens’ family. The daughter, Victoria, was there the night Sandy made land fall and witnessed the wrath of the hurricane firsthand. I interviewed Victoria, aka Vickie, about the hurricane and how life was after it.

Vickie is a great friend of mine; I consider her family. She was my sister’s best friend before, during and after Sandy. After Sandy hit her community, her house was incredibly damaged. This is where our friendship began. After sandy hit, Vickie lived with my family and I for seven months. When I Asked Vickie “What was your experience with Hurricane Sandy?”  she told me “Hurricane Sandy hit New York when I was in my senior year of high school. I live in the Rockaways right on the Atlantic Ocean and my house and community were destroyed. We got 6 feet of water on the first floor of our house and our foundation cracked. Our town had no water or electricity for 3 months. My house was completely unlivable for six months. My parents had to figure out what we were going to do with our severely damaged house while figuring out a place to stay, all while I finished high school and applied to college. It took us 4 years to rebuild our house and move back completely.”

Image result for breezy point after hurricane sandy
Breezy Point after Hurricane Sandy.

I saw her experience behind her displacement, and I witnessed her journey of returning back home. Most people think of a natural disaster and think about what the storm was like during its land fall. However, after living with her I realized the real disaster was the aftereffects, the unknowns of what will happen to her community and to her home. I wanted to unravel her recovery and what she learned from the experience.

I asked her “How did you feel after Sandy?” she told me, “Post Sandy I think we were all grateful to have gotten through it and scared to think about the future and what would happen with our house and community.”

I followed this idea of Post Sandy by asking “What did you learn from Sandy?”, with her head held high, she responded “I learned a lot from Sandy. I learned how lucky I am and to never take anything for granted. I learned the impact a natural disaster can have on people, communities, and cities. I learned how risky it is to own a house in a coastal flood zone. I learned how generous and caring people can be. I learned how tough and resilient people are. Sandy taught me a lot of life lesson.” It was remarkable to me after all the pain she had to endure, she still saw light from such a traumatic experience.

Part of Vickie’s recovery and journey back home had to do with the actual building of her home.

A huge part of her homes rebuilding was the aid she received from the government: “The government helped immensely. The federal government and the city government both provided funds and services to the hardest hit communities. The city backed program Build it Back helped to rebuild our house a few years after. The government was understanding and provided tax breaks and other help while people got back on their feet. “

At the end of our conversation she told me something positive that came from the storm, she said “The positives were that it taught everyone to be prepared and always be thankful for the things and people you have around you. I learned that for a future disaster I would have a plan. Listen to officials when they tell you to evacuate. Be ready for the unexpected. Pack up anything valuable. Stay together with family. “

She ended our interview telling me that “With all the money in the world I would definitely travel a lot, but I would always call home a house on the beach in Breezy Point.”

After this conversation with Vickie I realized some similarities and differences about Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Sandy. Both caused significant damages, some in places worse than others. Thousands of homes were lost and unlivable in. Displacement was a common and tragic theme to both Hurricane survivors.  Unfortunately, government aid was not as permissible to Maria survivors as they were to Sandy survivors.

It’s been seven years after Sandy and Breezy has improved but not to its best. During the chaos of the storm home owners banded together to fight Sandy. After the storm they banded together and rebuilt.They have come up with a future plan of attack to prevent catastrophic destruction such as Hurricane Sandy. The community is still growing together.The community raised money  to build a dune that would prevent flooding from a future storm surge. This article was written five years ago, explaining how they banded together and plan to continue to grow as a community. When I reached out to Vickie recently, I asked her how Breezy was doing. She told me that the community is still rebuilding and taking each day by day. 

However, the most amazing and meaningful impact to me was that the survivors always seemed to keep their heads held high with hope towards the future. They always stayed strong not just for themselves, but for their family.

Emotional responses of Puerto Ricans: American and Puerto Rico relationship

From the point of view of a Puerto Ricans who have a different perspective of how Puerto Rico mindset should be set. How they should be responding to the issues that they are facing as a country. I interview A.L who is a Puerto Rican living here in the United States. He had done research and wrote about what happened in Puerto Rico. He is also a political scientist by training and an activist. My interviewee’s understanding of what is happening right now was very different from what we have discussed in class. We covered a lot of concepts about hurricane maria, but we focus mostly on how government ( American) can help with the recoverer. When as my interview whole idea was that Puerto Ricans should find a way to help themselves in the first place—this quote is an explanation from the interview:

The kind of emotional responses people have to crisis like this, is more about blaming themselves for the trauma and the suffering they are experiencing. I think that the fact that Puerto Rico was going to a crisis already and is going to a crisis as right now. That was compounded by the hurricane and people experience that not as a country, however the way you experience that is as a person like the loss of job, the loss of  family member, losing a house. I think human nature is not to first think about we are suffering this as a country or society, rather to see and experienced how is it happening to you as an individual and to your family.

I think that we are all conditions in a way which is both bad and good to really think about the problem that we have in a very specific individual ways. That’s good because it is a very effective way of trying to see what can I change, what do I have control over right now. What I can be doing differently to change my situation, so that is positive response you just don’t blame things from outside or people. Try to see how you are responsible because essentially we are one way or the other responsible for many of the things that happen to us.

He thinks that people should make an impact thinking about what can they improve in their life. He believes that people need to be more responsible about their personal decision. this  also is almost the best was for Puerto Rico to recover from their Issues. One you learn how to get yourself out of a challenging situation, you will not need someone to help.

I believe that other people in the Island do need support that the people in Puerto Rico ideally do not want to see themselves as being helped, that is not what defines us. The economic crisis can not be at the end what defines us. The hurricane can not be what defines us. I am afraid that the hurricane is going to end up defining who we are. You know hurricane have happened before and along with the economic crisis. The history of Puerto Rico has been economic crisis and hurricanes going over and over again.”

” Now it is been amplified because of how many people live in the Island, the complexity of modern life, and our independent. All of those things we have to address them and colonialism and the relationship of the United States gets in the way of that. It does not allow people of Puerto Rico to practice the necessary skills and experience to train themselves on how you run a country. We always need to be looking over our shoulders to see what the Americans want us to do. I personally think that the United States should get out of the way in many of the things that they do, obviously we need them and want them to be part of what happened in the Island.

These quotes stands out for me, the most. The interview was very conversional and his perspective on the issues that are happening in Puerto Rico was different and great. My interviewee has a very positive thought about Puerto Ricans and how they can recover from this disaster. He also talks about how the hurricanes and the economic crisis can not be something that define Puerto Ricans. He was scared that hurricanes were going to remind people of who Puerto Ricans are. He did not like the fact that people have been talking about the hurricane and the economic crisis over and over again. Instead of looking for what can be changed to make Puerto Rico recover from this disaster. For these chances to happen people need to stop expecting from others, for them to do better for themselves. He believes that the United States should stop interfering in Puerto Rico affairs in certain ways. They need to allow Puerto Ricans to develop their own skills and experience. Americans should be helping without interfering as much as they should. Puerto Rico as a country should be able to build their nation together. 

The Resilience of Disaster Survivors

An interview about Hurricane Maria

I spoke with Emilyann, a 20 year old woman from Isabela, Puerto Rico, who shared her story with me about her experience with Hurricane Maria. She had been on the island when the hurricane struck Isabela, which is on the North-West side of the island. Her town was hit when the eye of the hurricane was exiting Puerto Rico. “It was very strange,” Emilyann said, “because I have never experienced a hurricane before.” She recalls preparing her room for the hurricane, and covering her windows with trash bags. I asked her how she found out about the hurricane, and she said through memes on facebook. “It all happened so quickly. At first people didn’t even take it [the hurricane threat] seriously until a few days before it was supposed to happen”. 

The night of the hurricane, she was awoken by strong winds, and no power. When the hurricane finally dissipated, she said her family was lucky to have fresh water, but they still did not have power or cellular connection. Her situation was one that millions of people on the island experienced. The hurricane knocked out about eighty percent of Puerto Rico’s power lines, and caused the largest blackout in U.S. history, and the second largest in the world. Emilyann recalls, “For me, this was the hardest part because I was always on my phone, and the next day, I just didn’t have a charge” (after letting her phone die the night of the hurricane). She said it definitely was not good, but she also said she doesn’t regret going through the experience. “I grew closer to my family members, and to my community as well.” 

Emilyann left a month after the hurricane, and came to New York by herself. “I have always wanted to be in New York; It has been a dream of mine.” She also said her move to a new place was not that difficult. “It was kinda easy for me. I have always been independent, but I feel it on the holidays when I’m not with my family. It gets hard.” 

Even though she moved, Emilyann has not left Puerto Rico behind. With her family still there she said that, “Whenever I can just book a flight and go, I’ll go”.  She said for her family, it was a matter of just getting adjusted to life after the hurricane. “There was stuff that just wasn’t open, things that you couldn’t do”. This past year when she visited Isabela, she said there was no water in her town. “It’s because of the Hurricane. When the winds came through, it blew out some sand in a lake that’s around my town that supplies the water, so then a drought came, and then there was no water. It was because of the hurricane that people were still suffering.” A common theme in Puerto Rico seems to be this struggle with complications from the aftermath of Maria, spanning from a health-care crisis to problems with infrastructure

Emilyann acknowledges that things in Puerto Rico were not at all easy for its residents. “People had the idea that everyone was reunited and they wanted to rebuild Puerto Rico which was good, but it took a long time to get there. People had the right idea and motivation but it wasn’t that easy.”  But, she said, “I don’t really think about the hurricane because I don’t regret that experience. It was tough to see, like I was fine, but other people weren’t really fine.” While Emilyann acknowledges that she was lucky in terms of the hurricane and its destruction, her positive outlook and attitude shows a resilience in disaster survivors that I think should be better reflected in the media portrayal of these individuals.

Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly; a toughness. I think Emilyann, along with many other Puerto Ricans, displayed a great resilience to the disaster that struck them. Instead of viewing the situation negatively, Emilyann had a positive outlook on everything. She knows that things could have been worse for her, but she still struggled through losing power for long periods of time, she had trouble getting in contact with family in the aftermath, and she watched a hurricane that destroyed her community. After all of that, she still does not regret the experience because ultimately she grew closer to her family and her community. She said the hurricane is something that is always in the back of her mind that she does not really bring forward, so when I asked about the two year anniversary of the hurricane, she said “I was also glad that it [the anniversary] happened, that it’s been a year that has past and also, it was better [in Puerto Rico] a year after, and people wanted it to be better than it was before the hurricane.”

After the whole experience, she ultimately says, “It’s something I will never forget.”

The Flood T&T

Coast Guards rescued residents in the La Horquetta.

For almost a week, beginning on, October 18, 2018, Trinidad and Tobago, experienced widespread severe flash flooding. After relentless rainfall, approximately 80 percent of the country was affected, mainly the northern, eastern, and central parts of the island. Many communities were either partially or completely flooded such as Sangre Grande, Matelot, Caroni, Mayaro, La Horquetta and St. Helena, affecting roughly 6,000 people. The floodwater depth made roads impassable and left some communities inaccessible, public warning messages alerting people that certain communities were now in either the orange or red risk level. Heavy rainfall within 24 hours equivalent to or surpassing a month’s worth of rain with loss of telecommunications and electricity for approximately three days after all the rainfall. Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley said, “This is a national disaster…” 

Stephen and his family luckily did not experience any flooding or destruction to their home or business. He said it’s because he “lives on an incline, higher grounds. Places that got hit by the flood were low line areas, so when the river bank couldn’t hold anymore it began to overflow, due to poor infrastructure and the government decision not to clean the drains.” Unfortunately, a lot of his neighboring communities were not as lucky and were in need of immediate help. Like most severe natural disasters various people experience loss or damage to property. Countless people required assistance to evacuate, shelter due to unlivable home conditions, food, clothes donations, etc. “Conditions of the houses after the flood was bad because of the level of the floodwaters, a lot of feces, people lost their cars, some were covered entirely. Some people also experienced landslide, foundations, and walls of homes were destroyed.” He explained that “some people cut holes in their roof, to escape because the flood water was roof high, people slept on top their roof for days.” 

People escaping the floodwaters by going onto rooftops.

Despite the dreadful situation people within different communities came together to respond to the crisis. Stephen himself along with family and friends didn’t just sit around, they set out to help those in need. When asked if people within communities helped more than the government, he said, “yes, by far, we bought food, water, non-perishable items, cleaning supplies and delivered it to the flood victims.” He described the experience as “heartbreaking, sad, seeing people lose everything having to start over from scratch. What was nice was seeing what humanitarian was like seeing people from different religious beliefs, cultural beliefs and races  coming together to help people that were in distress.” In such a devastating time, disaster collectivism is really what makes a huge difference immediately after a disaster.

Above waist height floodwaters

The abundant willingness of support and assistance that many provided to the flood victims was outright courageous. Even though a lot of livestock died and agricultural lands destroyed, directly after the flood “people were delivering hot meals and sandwiches to the victims, breakfast, lunch, and dinner they never were out of food.” Not only were the people within local and afar communities donating and helping those in need but, also the hardware stores, local and wholesale groceries. Stephen said, “hardware stores contributed too, they donated sandbags and other materials, to build barriers.” “The wholesalers, Price Smart an international franchise when supplies were bought for distribution the managers gave a 10% discount off the total bill. Some local groceries closed their business and actually packed boxes and hampers with supplies to distribute.” 

Distribution of sandbags
Distribution of supplies

Among those affected were prisoners, at Golden Grove Remand Section, floodwaters filled cells with approximately 3 feet of water. Those detained there were awaiting trial but have not yet been convicted. “A lot of offices were called out, some couldn’t reach the line of duty, they had to move prisoners from their cells to higher grounds, a very difficult task, a lot of prisoners and no staff, many prisoners lost their personal items.” For many first responders, it was hard for them as well, to commute, the Defense Force that could reach the line of duty helped distribute supplies and aided in rescue operations some people needed to be airlifted from their homes, they also utilized boats and rafts for rescue missions and the Coast Guards used scuba gears. During all the chaos “the Army delivered a baby, in the midst of the flood, on a boat.” 

Rescuing ladies in the floodwaters.

Even though disasters as a whole, are devastating for those that are affected, the recovery process and or the immediate aftermath is really what defines the moment. It’s a time in which many people effortlessly come together as one and take care of one another. Even though it is initially a time of weakness and sadness many people gain strength, sometimes going above and beyond to help others. In such a situation, people often open their hearts to complete strangers, it’s a beautiful thing. “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

The National Emblem of Trinidad and Tobago.

Living with Fear – One Puerto Rican Woman’s Trauma as a result of Hurricane Maria

“I fear that a great storm is going to come and kill me,” says Silvia Ramos. The 47 year old Puerto Rican explains this to me via a WhatsApp call that is so low quality, we might as well have been talking with the world’s worst walkie talkies. 

Hurricane Maria tragically struck the island of Puerto Rico 2 years ago. Ramos explains how people of the island were unprepared and unexpecting of the damages brought along with this storm. Poor phone quality aside, Ramos very explicitly recalls her experience in the midst of the hurricane and how she had to be “muy fuerte para mi familia” (very strong for my family). 

Ramos was fortunate enough to live in an area where the storm didn’t have as much of a physical impact on her home. Because of this, she took in seven other family members, including her 89 year old aunt, and provided them with food and shelter. She recalls this as being one of the most stressful times of her life. 

“I remember always being a little hungry…if serving myself less food meant that someone else could eat, then that’s what I had to do. I had to do what was right for my family”

Ramos had to learn to handle her own fears during Maria. She felt forced to put on a brave face for the sake of her family. She still has many vivid memories that haunt her about the devastation and anxiety felt during Hurricane Maria. Like Ramos, many other Puerto Rican natives are still having a hard time coping with everyday life. Across the island, more than three million people saw their communities devastated — many lost their homes, jobs, family members, and friends.

After the storm hit on September 20, 2017, there was an increase in anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder across the island. When people are more focused on their immediate needs like food and shelter, their mental health takes a backseat. Ramos explains how she refused to feel sorry for herself because she had to make sure her family survived. Silvia was working in a public school as a special education assistant at that time. The school was turned into a shelter to house hurricane survivors for 3 months. Having lost financial income was a great burden for Silvia because she was still responsible for seven other family members. Luckily, Silvia’s husband was able to bring in some income to the home, but it still wasn’t enough. Silvia’s family was very reliant on the help they received from their family members living on mainland USA. Without the help of her family in the mainland, Silvia doubted that she would be able to sustain her family in Puerto Rico. 

Natural disaster has significant mental health effects even for people who have more financial resources than many Puerto Ricans. A study conducted by the University of Albany after Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012 found “a significant increase in emergency room visits for substance abuse problems, psychosis, mood disorders and suicides throughout the city.”

In the aftermath of a climate disaster, survivors may recover physically but the mental health impacts can last for years to come. Psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren explains “solastalgia” and other aspects of climate anxiety.

The mental health toll of Maria on Puerto Ricans is still palpable to this day. A recent study came out that surveyed public school students about how Hurricane Maria impacted them. The study, conducted by the Puerto Rico Department of Education, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Hurricane Assessment and Referral Tool, and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), found that more than 7% of youths reported symptoms attributable to post-traumatic stress disorder after the storm.

As a result of the natural disaster, 83.9% of youths saw houses damaged, 57.8% had a friend or family member leave the island, 45.7% reported damage to their own homes, 32.3% experienced food shortages, and 16.7% still had no electricity five to nine months after the hurricane. In addition, 30% reported that they perceived their lives or the lives of people they loved to be at risk, which, according to The Guardian, is a strong predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Two years later, Silvia still “holds fear in her heart”. A lot of her family members that were originally staying with her eventually moved to mainland USA. Silvia is back to work in the public school and back to her prior “normal routine”. Financially, she is in a much better place, but her mental health is something she still struggles with. Silvia also believes she has PTSD. She is in constant fear that another storm is going to hit the island, and leave her completely vulnerable. She states she is more anxious now than ever before, especially during hurricane season. “Last time I was lucky” she states, “but I may not be so lucky next time.” 

A Reminder of Hope: One Puerto Rican Woman’s Outlook & Her Experience of Maria

Monica Donaldson, a 51-year old woman living in Luquillo with her husband and children, shared her story with me about what it was like to experience Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Her account showcased an amazing resilience— not only in her ability to help friends and family, but also her outlook towards the events. 

“Once the Hurricane is here, it’s actually kind of exciting. We get to experience nature at its worst, but also in its awesomeness. Maria was really intense— it didn’t rain much, but the winds were really bad. During the storm, my husband had to hold down a door that was blowing away. My daughter’s window was buckling in from the pressure. But the sound is incredible, like being next to the engine of an airplane.”

Monica had mentioned that the hurricane itself was an opportunity to experience the full capabilities of nature— you get to recognize the power that the Earth holds. The preparation, although intense, was a process that she and her family were familiar with. It was the after-effects of Maria that surprised everyone. 

Like many Puerto Ricans, Monica and her family experienced a lack of electricity for months, food shortages, and property loss. She described how her family stayed within their home for five days before they were able to leave. Their home, just outside of El Yunque national rainforest, remained intact. The same could not be said for their other property investments, rentals on AirBnB, that they utilized as a source of income.

Her neighbor’s house, which she had never seen before due to the forest’s usually dense foliage, had its roof ripped away by the strong winds.
Heading to a friend’s house. The road has been covered by
fallen trees.

The destruction of their property and a source of income was not all that was lost. Her husband could no longer work his job at the Wyndham hotel due to the building’s destruction. Her daughter could not complete her education while her school was being used as a shelter, and they needed to make the decision to send her to the States in order to complete high school.

Once they did leave the property, they quickly worked to help save their neighbors, many of whom were elderly, from being trapped within their homes from fallen trees— particularly her son due to his physical ability. A chainsaw became a unique necessity for them.

Her local grocery store had almost no food available. People were limited in the amount they were able to purchase.

__________________________________________

The community shared their perishable food items before they could go bad, but after 2 weeks, things began to look grim as the food supply slowly became smaller and smaller. She described how her family missed having fresh vegetables to eat, and to give that up was difficult due to it being such a staple, and everyday part of their lifestyle.

Monica’s story of community represents the strength of the community of the Puerto Rican people, in that they utilized their own resilience and ability to stand together in order to survive. It was necessary for them to help each other, as they were not receiving help from other government agencies— even two years later. The Trump administration continues to deny Puerto Ricans their aid via food stamps. Yet, Jennifer Lopez, famed celebrity of Puerto Rican background, offered up $1 million in aid through a NY State Aid program in the immediate recovery efforts.

Monica had even mentioned how some in her neighborhood are still using tarps because they cannot afford to fix their property. She explained how FEMA requires that the individual must own the property, and many who rent or have the property under a family member’s name were not able to receive those funds. From our own readings, we have found that many who applied for FEMA assistance were provided with a denied application due to the strict, and often times unfair, qualifications required to receive that funding. Furthermore, many were not able to apply because of the little assistance provided from FEMA agents within the island.

Even while the condition of her surroundings seemed grim, Monica was able to keep a cheery demeanor and even joked about how she had to get creative in the kitchen— “I’m gonna make a cookbook about how to cook during a hurricane. I’ve been really creative with how to make meals… a lot of beans. I thought I did good,” she laughed.

She possessed a positive outlook for every hardship they faced. Even the loss of electricity became a way in which her family became closer. She felt that this was vital in their ability to adapt and remain resilient, as they were able to be open about their experiences.

Even the loss of electricity became a way in which her family became closer. She felt that this was vital in their ability to adapt and remain resilient, as they were able to be open about their experiences.

Monica and her daughter, taking a hike through the rainforest to check on a friend.

“The lack of electricity ended up being such a blessing because we were together. We weren’t interrupted by our phones or TV. When the electricity did come back, it was kind of like, ‘I’m going to miss those times of connecting and talking.’”

Monica even described how her son seemed to be empowered by the whole experience. He was able to serve his community, and recognized his own ability to survive.

When I asked her about what her life is like now, 2 years later, compared to the initial impact back in 2017, she responded by emphasizing the way in which it is both necessary, and natural, to adapt to the situation as a whole. Her positive outlook was not an easy thing to maintain— she found it hard to assimilate back into her community, as many individuals were still distraught. She understood their pain, but could not be like that herself. Her positivity was her own way of adapting, and creating an environment for her and her children that allowed them to grow rather than fall apart.

“I have children. You have to keep it together. You have to make this a learning experience. You have to make this positive. You have children looking up to you who need guidance. How do I want my children to be affected? I can change their outlook in an instant. Yeah this sucks, but are we going to wallow? Let’s make this fun. They’re going to remember this from the rest of their lives, but now in a positive way.”

Monica’s resilience is a powerful message for us all. She and her family were able to see the good that the hurricane created in their lives. While she recognizes that it was in fact a terrible situation for people to be in, she also recognizes that she had a greater power to make the best of it all. Her story, experience, and outlook, are all vital when we consider the way that we choose to represent victims. While it is important to recognize the bad that they experience, to look at a group of people only as victims rather than survivors as well, undermines and limits their resilience.

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message