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.
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.
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.
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.
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.