Drenched by Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Ricans Band Together

TOA BAJA, PR – Five years after Hurricane Maria turned her neighborhood into a river of mud, María Cortés Dávila prepared once again to face the unstoppable waters with a broom.

This time, it was the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, a storm with weaker winds that still pushed more than a million people into the dark, causing landslides, flooding and crippling the island. The storm, now headed for Bermuda, left something else in its wake: a huge cleanup job – and the deep sense among its residents that recovery from this and the storms in the future, much of it depends on them.

“When these communities are flooded, we are like an island,” she said. “Surrounded by water.”

By 5 a.m. Tuesday, Hurricane Fiona floods recession has begun. Miss Cortés Dávila donned a blue t-shirt, shorts and knee-high rubber boots and woke her three children, mother and grandmother to the start of the first day of many long days of cleaning what, for many, Puerto Ricans, became a storm of ritual horror.

“This was going to happen every 15 years, but now we are having these floods all too often,” said Cortés Dávila, as the sun shone down on her neighborhood in Toa Baja. , west of San Juan, helps purify the water. rushed into the first floor of her house.

Since Hurricane Fiona hit Sunday as a Category 1 hurricane, sending about 30 inches of rain over parts of the island, Puerto Ricans have emerged from homes and shelters. their damp and dilapidated for damage assessment. Most people are still without electricity and water, bringing back painful memories of the devastation that Hurricane Maria, a near Category 5 hurricane, caused on September 20, 2017.

On Wednesday, Governor Pedro R. Pierluisi said he expected “a large portion of the population” to have electricity and water restored by the end of the day, although the number of customers getting service back has only increased. gradually. More than 70% of the island’s 1.5 million electricity customers were still without power by the afternoon.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Deanne Criswell, has joined the governor since Tuesday, with whom he plans to visit remote towns in Puerto Rico’s central mountain regions. Ms Criswell said she has seen some significant damage – and residents are taking care of the problem themselves.

“I see neighbors helping neighbors,” she said. “I met a woman named Ana who opened her own home and driveway to help create a path for the community. With the bridge washed away, her home became that avenue to help get food and water to the rest of her community.”

Pierluisi asked the White House on Tuesday to approve a major emergency declaration, allowing more federal aid to flow to the island. He said teams are sending supplies to remote communities where there is little or no road left. Around the island, diggers and other heavy machinery appeared. The same goes for the water trucks that carry long lines of residents with empty containers.

For Cortés Dávila of Toa Baja, Hurricane Maria was worse: By then, floods had reached the second floors of homes and forced dramatic rooftop rescues in the middle of the night.

She pointed to a freshly left horizontal mud-stained wall, about eight feet high. “That is the mark left by this flood,” she said. Parallel to it – but more than four feet tall – was another brown line, almost imperceptible now. “And that is the mark of Maria,” she added. “We continue to collect points.”

Hurricane Maria and the slow response left deep scars on Puerto Ricans and left them with little confidence that authorities would help in a time of need.

After Maria, 42-year-old Cortés Dávila, a long-time resident of the Villa Calma 2 community in Toa Baja, vowed never to be arrested if she was not prepared for a disaster. By 2019, she and her neighbors had formed a community nonprofit out of an abandoned school to organize seminars and prepare emergency plans.

Villa Calma 2, a community of 125 houses, is located in a large plain that was once a sugarcane plantation, surrounded by irrigation canals that feed into the La Plata River, which flows nearby on its final stretch before empties into the Atlantic Ocean. About 925 more families live in similar lowland communities. Hurricane Fiona, like Hurricane Maria, caused the La Plata River to burst its banks.

“After Maria, I don’t know anyone. I don’t know who to turn to for help,” said Cortés Dávila. “I went on Facebook and saw that this fund would be helped by the community, and I would write to them, letting them know my community needs that help too.”

Now, she and her neighbors from the Asociación de Comunidades Unidas Tomando Acción Solidaria, the aid group they founded to help their communities become self-sufficient in the face of adversity, are the people others turn to for help. Supported.

Cortés Dávila has been involved in her community since she was a young woman. As a teenager, she taught catechism at a local Catholic parish and later held arts and crafts classes for the elderly. In the years since helping to found the community association, she and her neighbors have built an industrial-grade kitchen to feed people during the coronavirus pandemic – and now plan to remade after Hurricane Fiona.

On Tuesday, the first day of the cleanup, Cortés Dávila went to her sister’s house and, with the help of her family, swept away the mud with a broom and shovel. Some of them were wearing gloves. No tap water.

From there, they moved to Cortés Dávila’s house, where the neighbors also helped. They piled broken appliances – washers, dryers, grills – in a corner. An increasingly large group of friends came and split up to the house across the street.

There, 24-year-old Laritza Rolón Echevarría and her partner, José Rodríguez Marrero, 27, lost their home again.

The couple lived downstairs with their three young children; The rear terrace contains building materials, furniture and cabinets, which they hope to install upstairs. Like many in the vicinity, they had hoped to be moved to higher ground to avoid damage from rising floodwaters.

The couple has faced two floods since receiving the home – including one in February that left some of their belongings submerged in water 3 meters deep.

Her grandparents Rolón Echevarría, who have lived on the streets for four decades, have seen and survived many more. They also live on the ground floor. Their home was recently furnished with a new dining table, sofa and chairs, purchased on credit from a local furniture store. Hurricane Fiona drenched it all.

Cortés Dávila said she was tired of repeated tragedies. She says she wants to move to a home where she can provide her family with a safe place whenever a storm threatens with strong winds and heavy rain. But she says there are no real housing options for people like her and her neighbors.

“This house I built bit by bit, worked my whole life and got personal loans,” said Cortés Dávila, who planned to install a ladder on the side of the house to get to the terrace. refunded. “I don’t owe anyone anything.”

After working hard and with tears in her eyes, she confessed her deep fear of floods.

“I can’t swim,” she said. “But I couldn’t show it. I need to be strong for my family and community. But, the truth is I was really scared.”

Patricia Mazzei contribution report.

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