My Maria story: six Puerto Ricans on surviving after the hurricane

A university student, a mother with two sons in prison and a food truck owner explain how their lives were uprooted following the storm

Camille Mercado Rivera, student, Caguas

“When the hurricane came I had just started back at university,” said Camille Mercado Rivera, a 19-year-old science major at the University of Puerto Rico. “We had two days of classes and then we were out.”

Her family had prepared for the gas lines by fueling their car before the storm, but because electricity was out for longer than anticipated, they had to buy a generator. She said her close-knit community in Caguas watched out for each other, and threaded power cables between homes so neighbors could have access to electricity.

One of her school buildings had been ripped apart, but she was able to return to class earlier than expected.

“Out of the blue, it was like, we’re starting, the 30th of November,” Mercado Rivera said.

For the first week of class, students wrote in the dark because there was still no electricity.

She has also spent the months since Maria volunteering with her father in a San Juan kitchen operated by the not-for-profit World Central Kitchen, which has provided 3.6m meals to Puerto Ricans since the hurricane hit.

“People keep asking me: ‘Why are you still cooking? You are a science major,’” Mercado Rivera said. “But I’m volunteering and helping people. I want to be a pharmacist because I want to help people.”

She said the core volunteers and workers at World Central Kitchen, who number about 100, had grown very close since the hurricane. “It’s not like coming to work, it’s like coming to see my family,” she said.

Madeline Gotay, San Juan

Madeline Gotay.
Madeline Gotay. Photograph: Oliver Laughland

“It was one month without hearing from my two sons. They are both incarcerated at the Bayamón prison and I couldn’t speak to them or visit them that whole time. The communication with prison staff was so bad. My sadness and anxiety was overwhelming. I had no idea if they were eating or even if they were still alive.

“I live in the suburbs of San Juan and my home was torn apart. The windows were broken in by Maria and the house flooded. My clothes were destroyed. My stove and my refrigerator washed away.

“When I finally got in contact with my two boys, Juan Carlos, who is serving a 50-year homicide sentence, and Freddie, who is serving 28 years for attempted homicide, I had to bring them food and bottled water. They said the food inside was still basic rations, and told me the medical care was terrible.

“They said they were terrified during Maria. It felt like the prison was collapsing and they had no idea what was going on.

“I try to see them at least once a week. I’m terrified about what will happen if another hurricane hits.”

Griselle Vila, executive chef at World Central Kitchen, San Juan

Griselle Vila.
Griselle Vila. Photograph: Angel Valentin/The Guardian

Before the hurricane, Griselle Vila was a celebrated private chef in San Juan, working from home in a cooking business her mother has owned for nearly three decades.

Nine months later, most of her time is spent in one of the many kitchens operated by World Central Kitchen, where she works as executive chef.

Vila heard about the group’s efforts to cook thousands of meals to deliver to hard-hit areas and volunteered to help. “It became an addiction,” Vila said.

Vila lives in San Juan and during the hurricane watched as water poured through a skylight into her mother’s closet. During breaks in the storm, Vila, like her neighbors, would climb on to the roof and clean out the gutters, hoping to reduce the water flowing into her home.

Her home was in relatively good condition after the storm, but she said the hurricane was “the most terrifying thing I ever lived through”.

“Most people have been through an earthquake at some point. Imagine an 18-hour earthquake,” Vila said. “Everything was trembling. It was insane.”

She works long hours, sometimes more than 20 hours a day, and occasionally loses sleep thinking of the work ahead. But she perseveres because she knows her island is in need.

“Whenever I’m getting tired and losing strength to do this, I go out on deliveries with Lola – she’s one of our volunteers – and I go to her community and see what’s going on,” said Vila. “It keeps you going. There’s no way to stop once you see what’s going on.”

Javier Seáñez, owner and chef at Las Cucharas food truck, San Juan

Javier Seáñ–ez, owner of Las Cucharas Comida Mexicana, by his food truck at the Miramar Food Truck Park.
Javier Seáñ–ez, owner of Las Cucharas Comida Mexicana, by his food truck at the Miramar food truck park. Photograph: Angel Valentin/The Guardian

At the Miramar food truck park in San Juan, Javier Seáñez slings steaming carne asada and chile relleno tacos from his Las Cucharas food truck, which he has run for three years.

The 35-year-old said in the weeks after the hurricane, work was almost impossible across the food industry because grocery stores were understocked and rationing what supplies they had left.

“Right now, I can go to the grocery store and get 100 pounds of pork, but then I couldn’t because it was supposed to be equal for everyone,” Seáñez said.

There were also enormous lines at the grocery store, gasoline stations and ATMs to deal with.

“I had to wait in lines at the grocery store every day, for two, three hours before they opened, to cook fresh.” Seáñez said.

Seáñez, who moved from Juárez, Mexico, to Puerto Rico three years ago, said Maria changed how he looked at life on the island, but he refused to live in fear of the next hurricane.

“We are ready, or at least a little bit more prepared, for another situation like that,” Seáñez said. “And we are thinking in advance what could happen again.”

He said the scale of destruction had had a huge impact on how he related to his neighbors.

“You become more human because you see people’s needs,” Seáñez said. “Because no one, no one knows what really happened unless you were here. Because what the media shows and the press shows, it doesn’t even compare to the situation we were in.”

Marta Rivera, Arecibo

Marta Rivera. Her house, in the background, was flooded during Hurricane Maria.
Marta Rivera. Her house, in the background, was flooded during Hurricane Maria. Photograph: Angel Valentin/The Guardian

“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.

“We were taken to a hospital and it collapsed while we were still there. There was a hole in the roof and the water was coming in. They would write our social security numbers on our arms with a Sharpie because we had to be taken out so quickly. My son was one of the people taking others out, including babies.

“I had diabetes and now I’m a cancer patient. I had a relapse because of what happened; I didn’t have the medicine I need. I still have trouble getting the medication.

“I went through hunger. I got help from [the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema)]. I got a washing machine and dryer because I can’t really lift anything. I also got help from the church – a woman there donated me clothes. Through this catastrophe I’ve learned how to wear clothes that were worn by someone else. I never had to do that before. I had everything and just overnight I lost everything.

“At the beginning, I used to think a lot about the hurricanes and have nightmares. I used to cry a lot. But my son helped calm me down.

“Now I’m in a place paid for by Fema. I’m now trying to get back on my feet and stabilize my health.”

Alberto Escobar, Arecibo

Alberto Escobar, 69, in the front porch of his current apartment.
Alberto Escobar, 69, in the front porch of his current apartment. Photograph: Angel Valentin/The Guardian

“The hurricane took apart my house, took off the walls, the roof, the ceiling, everything. I wasn’t there at the time; I was at my daughter’s house because it was fully equipped for a hurricane.

“I had to move in with my daughter and my son-in-law. I’ve been here for nine months now. It’s been very difficult because the house is very small compared to mine. I feel uncomfortable because there’s no privacy and I feel like I’m going crazy. It’s OK for the first few days but then time just goes on.

“I’ve applied for a new place because I can’t see myself going back to my destroyed house. I want to get back on my feet because my life is very frustrating at the moment.

“I used to work in a body shop, painting cars. But I’m not working now because I had a hernia, had a couple of surgeries. I’m trying to get my pension. I might just have to get a part-time job.

“I have a macaw called Galito. He keeps me company. He curses a lot. Some kids in the neighborhood walked by and he heard them and cursed at them. Now, whenever they walk by, he curses at them even if they say nothing. I am going to have to tend to his feathers – he’s pulled some out. He’s probably lacking calcium.”


Amanda Holpuch , Oliver Laughland and Oliver Milman

The GuardianTramp

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