In the mountains of Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria still rules

Members of one family in the Comerio region of Puerto Rico watch as a lamp lights up from energy produced by a solar panel. The family received the lamp and a water purifying system on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, as a team of Red Cross volunteers visited the area.


By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 10, 2017

COMERIO, Puerto Rico — The roads are mostly clear, so now some supplies can get here. But life in this mountain region in the heart of Puerto Rico is still very much in the grips of Hurricane Maria.

Nearly seven weeks after the storm landed a direct hit Sept. 20, people in this region stand amid the ruins, many wondering aloud how to see a future in this. Their sinks are dry and their nights are pitch black. Their roads are littered with downed trees and electrical poles that tilt every which way — if they are still standing at all. Concrete poles that were broken in half sit in testament as do trees older than living humans ripped up by their massive roots. Mudslides are frequent and what were once lush and vibrant trees mark the landscape as bare stalks with new green sprouts at their tips.

“It was beautiful,” said Raiza Fonseco, a local Red Cross employee, of her island.

It’s too soon for many here to see hope sprouting on those mowed-down trees. They will be green again. But it is a time in the recovery when the Red Cross teams going door to door on these mountainsides can offer real help, says Leandro Taraborrelli, a Red Cross disaster relief worker.

Immediately after the storm, Taraborrelli and others joined in emergency food and water distributions. But now, he’s coming back for a second round, bringing people more targeted help — solar powered lamps and water filters. The kinds of things that can help people get back to a kind of normal.

“It’s really nice when you have the chance to come back with the right help,” he said.

But he also gets to know the people, hears their stories, gives them hugs.

Every day he can help people like this feels like the best day, he said. Then the next day, he might wake up tired and have to go out all over again. But by the end of the day, it’s the best day.

“It’s an addiction,” he said. “A good addiction.”


Iris and Juan Escribano

Her eyes hurt from the cataract surgery she had before the storm. His diabetes is causing headaches and pain. His feet are swollen.

Juan Escribano stays with his sister right now. His home just down the sloping road lost its roof. It is riddled with dampness, mold and mildew. Trash is piling up, alongside debris. No one is coming to collect it.

“We lost everything,” Iris said, wiping her eyes.

They had to send Juan’s wife away — she wasn’t well.

He’s not well either, Pastor Marco Hernandez confided. Juan suffers from mental illness. He has been talking lately of ending his own life.

She worries for her brother. And sometimes, Maria’s wrath still haunts her.

“Sometimes I have to drink pills to sleep because I have in my mind the wind, the sounds,” she said. “I tell my husband I am going to go crazy.”


Hector Bueno and Nelly Gonzales

They stood on their front porch under their hanging laundry, two small dogs yelping, and they greeted the man in the Red Cross vest as an old friend.

Leandro Taraborrelli pulled out a solar lamp and Hector Bueno reacted with delight.

“Yesterday I dreamed I would have something to light up my house at night!” he said.

He’s 74. His wife, Nelly Gonzales, is 70. They’ve been married 58 years, he said.

They have six sons, 20 grandchildren and 27 great grandchildren, she said.

Next, Taraborrelli pulled out a water filter and demonstrated how it works. He filtered a glass of their yellowy spring water and held it up to an unfiltered glass. It was much clearer.

“Nelly, come see this!” Hector said.

“Wow,” Nelly said.

He tried it. “It tastes much better,” he said. “I give thanks from my heart,” he told the Red Cross team.


Carmen Febo

Just yards away, at the bottom of a small road leading down the mountainside, are the remains of an trailer that was blown apart in the storm. Sofas, wood furniture, an oven and pieces of a washing machine sit in a nearby dump pile.

Adjacent to the remnants is a concrete home.

Carmen Febo gave the visitors a hug and brought them inside to see the damage. The windows blew out and water came into the house, she said. Floors are peeled away and the plaster and paint on the walls and ceiling are bubbling and peeling.

Neighbors stayed with her during the storm. They lost their house, she said. So did her brother who lived in the adjacent trailer. He’s now in Orlando, Fla.

She lives alone here now. “It can’t be helped,” she said with a shrug. But trauma and isolation conspire to bring up old grief. She lost a granddaughter a few years back to leukemia. Then her husband died. And months later, her daughter Joannelise, the girl’s mother, died of a heart attack, Febo said in tears.

The storm still scares her, she said, so she keeps herself occupied by going to church.

FEMA came a while back and offered to help her move. But Febo wanted to stay home. Now she wonders whether she made a mistake. The 70-year-old has had two heart attacks. And she gets nervous at night.

“I am alone here,” she said. “It’s very dark.”


Felix Rodrigues and Margie Ortiz

They rode out the storm in a neighbor’s house and came back to water that took three days to drain, said Margie Ortiz. By the time it had dried out, all they could salvage was a pile of papers that they now keep in the car — certificates proving Felix Rodrigues was certified in advance search and rescue in 1993, ’94 and ’95.

The living room, the television, the refrigerator, sit in a heap outside.

“All the roof flew away,” Ortiz said. “We tried to fix it.”

She was excited when Taraborrelli gave her a solar lamp. Then she started to cry. Felix cried too. He cried for a long time talking with the pastor. Then he came over and touched his wife.

They’ve been together 28 years. She’s 61, he’s 66.

She walked inside, pulled up the blanket off the bed to show a rotting, moldy mattress.

“We have no family,” she said in the tiny sparsely furnished house. “We are alone — just me and him. But I love him.”

He walked in and brushed back her hair with his hands.


Margaret de Jesus and her family

They stood on the second story of a tiny hut, Margaret de Jesus and her daughters — one holding her granddaughter. There are currently six living in a single room.

Next door stands a concrete house that had a second story before Maria. But that blew away in the storm.

“I was looking out the window and I saw my house being destroyed,” said de Jesus, who waited out the storm with family in the downstairs of the house.

“There was a moment when it got really rough, between the sounds and the wreckage. I thought the (whole) house would go down.”

For more than two weeks, they were isolated from the world. Communications were all down.

Now she worries about the future, she said. “For the baby, for the house. It’s very hard to get things – water and food – when you live up here.”

Still, she said, she knows that things change drastically in just a few weeks.

It will get better, she said.

Twitter: @DiannaCahn

Marco Hernandez, a local pastor acting as guide for a Red Cross team visiting the Comerio region of Puerto Rico. comforts Felix Rodriguez with a long hug on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017.

Juan Escribano talks with Red Cross team members on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, about the hardships and mental duress he has faced after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in September 2017. Attached to a car in front of his home in Camerio is a small American flag placed atop a Puerto Rican flag.

Hector Bueno and wife Nelly Gonzales marvel at the results of a water purifying system that had been given to them by a Red Cross team distributing the purifiers and solar-powered lamps to residents in the Comerio region of Puerto Rico.

Carmen Febo shows her appreciation with a huge smile and a hand clasp after receiving a gift from Red Cross worker Raiza Fonseca in the Comerio region of Puerto Rico, on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017.

Red Cross volunteer Leandro Taraborrelli hugs Margie Ortiz during a visit to residents in the Comerio region of Puerto Rico on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. In the background, Marco Hernandez, a local pastor acting as guide for the Red Cross team, comforts Felix Rodriguez.

Margaret de Jesus looks out from a small home next to her destroyed dwelling seen in the background in the Comerio region of Puerto Rico, on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017.

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