Six Months After the Storm: How Two Women Navigate Life Post-Hurricane Maria

Post-Hurricane Maria, Leonides Maldonado feels nervous every time it rains in Puerto Rico. The lack of transportation in the island limits her options to seek counseling after a traumatic experience during the storm. (Photo: Sofi LaLonde)

By Griselda Flores and Sofi LaLonde

Angie’s Hurricane Maria Experience

“I remember I couldn’t sleep the whole night and day, whatever it was, I don’t even remember like what time it hit and what time it ended. The whole moment is kind of blurry.”

When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Angie Rosa and her family of four hunkered down in their three-bedroom apartment in Puerta de Tierra, an up-and-coming neighborhood of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, that is experiencing first signs of gentrification. Angie reinforced the apartment’s ocean-facing windows with tape while her husband, Richard, moved their art collection onto their bed and covered it with bed sheets and plastic shower curtains.

The family waited out the hurricane in their sons’ shared bedroom – the safest room in the apartment with the smallest windows. The electricity and water went out before the storm even hit. They waited in darkness.

The Category 4 hurricane winds pounded against Angie’s apartment windows at nearly 155 mph, flexing them in and out so far that they looked like a bubble, she said. Rain seeped into the apartment through the aged rubber window seals as debris slammed against the walls.

Leonides’ Hurricane Maria Experience

About 45 minutes south of Angie’s home in San Juan, in a mountainous town called Juan Asencio in Aguas Buenas, Leonides Maldonado was home with her husband and brother during the storm.

“I brought my brother to my house so he could be here with us since he lives all alone,” Leonides said in Spanish. (Leonides’ interview has been translated from Spanish to English for this story.)

During the storm, Leonides heard something fall outside of her front door. “When I looked outside the window, I saw that an avocado tree had fallen and landed right in front of the door. We also had a van here and that’s what … I get chills just talking about it … so the van moved and landed there. It was on the edge right on top of the road. Ay, I can’t say it.”

Leonides’ house is cushioned between the forested hills of Juan Asencio. The van teetered precariously on the edge of her driveway, above the grassy slope that leads down to the road and the neighboring family’s house.

Leonides Maldonado’s home sits on top of a hill in Juan Asencio, a mountainous town in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico. She’s lived in this house with her husband for nearly eight years. (Photo: Sofi LaLonde)

She was terrified when she saw the van. “When I was leaving [my house], I heard the dad and the kids screaming, ‘Oh my God, the van is moving.’ and then I heard the kids crying,” she said.

Her eyes filled with tears as she tried to tell the story, but she couldn’t get any words out. She stood in silence for a few minutes before finishing. “The van was just hanging … [it] landed there but because I was so scared, I thought we were trapped,” said Leonides.

Listen to Leonides here:

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Hurricane Maria lasted more than 30 hours, dumping almost 30 inches of rain in some areas of Puerto Rico. The storm left the entire island without electricity and access to clean water. Almost six months later, nearly 200,000 residents remain without power.

According to Puerto Rican government officials, as of December, 64 people were killed by the storm.

But skepticism surrounding the actual death toll increased after data obtained by the Center for Investigative Journalism showed that nearly 1,000 people had died after Hurricane Maria. In February, a team of researchers at the George Washington University announced they will lead an independent investigation to determine the number of deaths caused by Hurricane Maria.

Mosquitos Everywhere: Angie’s Damage

Back in Puerta de Tierra, Angie, Richard and their sons Raxel, 8, and Kian, 6, emerged from the small bedroom after the hurricane passed. The apartment was severely damaged by the rain. The water settled underneath their linoleum floors, carpet and in the ceiling.

The family began to clean up the rain-soaked items, trying to save as much as they could. The mosquitos were the worst Angie had ever experienced, and she was fearful of diseases like Zika and dengue.

Richard knew that their situation would not get better, even though the storm had passed. “He’s like, ‘this is gonna get worse. This is gonna get really, really bad.’ He was just like, ‘we got to get you guys out of here,’” she said.

Listen to Angie here:

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After the storm, Angie recalled scavenging from stores for water and mosquito repellent, waiting in lines for hours outside the gas station and the bank near her home. One day, Angie and the boys were waiting for gas. It was a piping hot day, so she opened all the doors and windows while parked in the line.

“We waited in line like two-and-a-half hours. And then Richard decided to come by, and he was probably like 10 cars after me. So then he would lock his car and come by and like talk and then run back,” she said laughing. “I mean, we have to laugh now because what else you gonna do, but it was intense.”

The Mudslide: Leonides’ Damage

Leonides’ house overlooks the small town of approximately 4,000 people located just a few miles south of San Juan. “This is my humble home in Juan Asencio. It gets wet and everything, but we live happily here,” Leonides said.

Leonides and her husband have lived in the house for almost eight years. Their daughter lives just a few houses down the road with her husband and kids.

The house suffered some minor damages from the storm. There are a few cracks on the outside and some of the yellow paint came off. The house flooded and some of her furniture was ruined.

“When I looked outside the window, I saw that an avocado tree had fallen and landed right in front of the door. We also had a van here and that’s what … I get chills just talking about it … so the van moved and landed there. It was on the edge right on top of the road. Ay, I can’t say it.” –Leonides Maldonado

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency opened stations in towns throughout the island to help residents apply for low-interest disaster loans to help pay for damages, Leonides cannot apply for disaster assistance.

The application requires proof of home ownership. Leonides cannot provide the necessary documents since her house has been passed on from past generations, something common among families in Puerto Rico.

Angie Leaves for Florida and Chicago

In mid-October, Angie and the boys left Puerto Rico for her parents’ house in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Richard left for Chicago a few days later, where he was offered a job to paint a set of murals inside a new daycare center in Humboldt Park. Angie worked remotely while homeschooling her boys until she found a temporary school for them in Florida.

The move to Florida was difficult for Angie. People didn’t understand what her family had been through, she said. When they discovered she was from Puerto Rico, strangers would try to empathize with her with stories about going through Hurricane Irma, but that bothered Angie.

“I remember going to Walgreens with my mother the night I got there. And when I walked in, that overwhelming feeling of like, look at all the water, look at all the mosquito repellent,” she said. “When I saw all the mosquito repellent that’s when I realized I have some post-traumatic stress because my reaction was like, it was like… I can’t explain it.”

Angie Rosa listens to her son explain his drawing during dinner at their favorite Thai restaurant in Chicago. Angie and her two sons arrived in Chicago on Christmas Day. (Photo: Sofi LaLonde)

When they left Puerto Rico, Angie thought they would return after Thanksgiving. But they stayed in Florida for another month, and eventually moved even farther away to Chicago. When they packed their bags for Florida, they packed for an “adventure” to see their grandparents, or as Raxel and Kian call them: abuela and abu. But soon the boys asked when they could go back home, and Angie is worried that her boys didn’t have closure.

Angie and her two sons arrived in Chicago on Christmas day. Her husband Richard had been working in Chicago since October, and with some help from the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Humboldt Park, he was able to find an apartment. His friend Beti helped him find a car, furniture and some donated winter coats and clothing.

Richard set up a Christmas tree, ready for his family’s arrival.

Hurricane Relief Efforts in Chicago

The City of Chicago also prepared for the arrival of Puerto Rican evacuees.

On Nov. 2nd, The Office of Emergency Management and Communications opened the Hurricane Resource Center at the Humboldt Park Field House. With additional support from the Department of Family and Support Services, the resource center served as a one-stop shop for evacuees seeking emergency housing, health services and donated items, among other disaster-related relief.

The center provided resources at the city, state and federal levels, according to Cristina Villarreal, director of communications at the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. These resources included Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, the Office of the Illinois Secretary of State issuing state IDs and the Illinois Department of Human Services, as well as Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Department of Public Health.

According to Villarreal, the center has served 1,656 people, which translates to 866 families, to date.

The center’s outreach was a city-led effort and did not receive any federal financial support. In order to receive federal funding for disaster-related relief, Puerto Rico must declare Illinois a host state, which it didn’t. But FEMA was present at the center to help evacuees apply for federal aid through its website. Villarreal said the city diverted various department resources and staff members to the field house.

The resource center is just one example of relief efforts within the city. The Puerto Rican Agenda, a non-profit organization of local Puerto Rican community leaders, played a large role in raising money and sending emergency aid to the island.

Just five days after the hurricane, and with the help of Congressman Luis Gutierrez and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, the Puerto Rican Agenda sent a plane filled with emergency aid supplies, including water, batteries, baby food and flashlights, to the island. Upon its return, the plane brought back 300 evacuees to Chicago.

Outside medical groups, including Norwegian American Hospital and Erie Family Health Center, provided additional medical assistance at the resource center.

Erie Family Health Center, a non-profit medical center in the Chicago area that can provide services for uninsured patients, was at the resource center from the very start. About 70 to 80 percent of Erie Family Health Center’s staff is Hispanic.

As of late February, Erie Family Health has seen approximately 180-200 patients from Puerto Rico. All patients received a behavioral health evaluation at their medical visit, and 71 percent agreed to further mental health counseling.

Behavioral health therapists are introduced by the medical doctor at the initial visit to help with the transition, said Robin Varnado, regional director of operations and behavioral health at Erie Family Health. “If we integrate it as part of the medical visit, then people tend to destigmatize it as mental health care and they’re more likely to come back,” she said.

From Nov. 2 to Jan. 2, known as “Phase One” of the resource center, 916 evacuees sought medical assistance from the Chicago Department of Public Health, and nearly 19 percent sought further services at the city’s mental health clinics.

Mental health resources were among the top five most requested services at the resource center, according to Frankie Shipman-Amuwo, director of planning, research and development in the Emergency Preparedness Bureau at the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Nikoleta Boukydis, a psychologist at the Emergency Preparedness Bureau, said they expected a wide range of symptoms in evacuees after such a devastating event. “People were showing signs of being anxious, worried, confused, grief over their losses, a sense of uncertainty and apprehension,” she said.

The department of public health referred evacuees to one of its five clinic locations across Chicago. However, the city only has five bilingual counselors on staff covering just three of its five clinics.

Leonides Leaves Her House After the Storm

Like Angie, Leonides also left her home after Hurricane Maria. But she didn’t leave the island.

Leonides’ husband and her brother took her out of the house through the back door because she was too scared to see the van teetering on the edge of her driveway. She stayed at her brother’s house, who lives near Leonides, where she waited for the van to be moved out of the way.

The van stayed on the ledge for two weeks until it was removed by military servicemen.

“This is my little house. It gets wet and everything but we live happily here,” Leonides says. During Hurricane Maria, Leonides stayed in her home with her husband and brother. (Photo: Sofi LaLonde)

Even after Hurricane Irma made landfall on the island on Sept. 6, two weeks before Hurricane Maria, Leonides didn’t leave her house. But Maria was different.

“I went through a lot,” she said. “Hurricane Irma passed through here and we stayed home. Nothing happened. But Hurricane Maria just wouldn’t ‘shut up’ like we say.”

Angie’s Life in Chicago

Angie is settling in Chicago fairly well. The boys are enrolled in a Montessori school, she is working at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and Richard is still painting the murals at the daycare center. But Angie said she does not feel totally at home.

“I don’t know where to go take [a] yoga class or where to get my eyebrows done,” she said, laughing. “Little things like that can make me feel more like, ‘okay at least I’m doing something for myself.’ I still haven’t found that.”

Angie Rosa and her son, Kian, look at photos of their cat, Nara, who they left behind in Puerto Rico with Angie’s mother-in-law. They hope to bring Nara to Chicago soon. (Photo: Sofi LaLonde)

Angie said she thinks she has some sort of post-traumatic stress. She doesn’t have panic attacks, but instead gets waves of emotions that she can’t explain. Sometimes her stress comes from worrying if she and Richard made the right decision to leave Puerto Rico.

Angie recently connected with The Erikson Institute in Chicago, looking for therapy for her and her boys. She wants to find tools to help them manage their emotions and stress from leaving Puerto Rico and moving to a big city. She wants to create good memories here.

One Chicago-based hospital provided aid outside the city

To assist with medical services on the island, Norwegian American Hospital partnered with the New Life Covenant Church and the National Association of Hispanic Nurses to send teams of nurses and physicians on two, week-long medical trips to Puerto Rico.

Ready with six suitcases packed with medication and supplies, the first trip left for San Juan in early November. The second team left after Thanksgiving.

The teams worked outside of San Juan in rural cities – like Leonides’ hometown of Juan Asencio – that had little access to services.

They opened makeshift clinics in churches, set up pharmacies and embarked on house visits to homebound patients in rural, mountainous areas. The teams assessed basic medical needs such as diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and skin rashes from exposure to dirty water. Sometimes they saw over 100 patients per day.

While getting treatment for their medical needs, patients also expressed symptoms of depression. One nurse said they weren’t prepared for the amount of people who expressed mental health concerns.

“There were quite a few people, and it’s understandable, who came in with depression,” said Bogumila Bendyk, nursing supervisor and coordinator at Norwegian American Hospital. “There were a lot of people who were depressed and we had a few psychiatric meds, but not very many. Some anti-anxiety [meds], but not many at all.”

Leonides Returns Home

“When I saw the van had been removed, I was able to come back,” Leonides said.

For Leonides, Hurricane Maria left more than physical damages. It left mental ones too. Almost six months after the storm and mudslide, Leonides gets triggered by rain. The memory of the mudslide still haunts her. “Sometimes when they park cars where the van was, I get very nervous. I also get very nervous when it rains because this wasn’t easy for me.”

She often visits her daughter and grandkids to find some sort of distraction. “Sometimes I stay there with them a couple of days. At first, when it all happened, I would go over there and when it would rain, I’d tell my husband that I wouldn’t come home. I’d stay with my daughter instead.”

While Leonides has thought about seeking counseling for her trauma, it’s nearly impossible to travel to town to see a doctor. There is no public transportation in Juan Asencio, and if she wanted to seek professional help, she’d have to catch a ride from someone.

Leonides saw her primary physician after Hurricane Maria. He gave her a pill to help her relax, but because she doesn’t like to take a lot of medicine, she doesn’t take the pill anymore.

Navigating the Healthcare System in Puerto Rico

Many residents don’t have reliable transportation and know little about the health system in Puerto Rico, which directly impacted people’s lives and their medical decisions even before Hurricane Maria.

“Access to mental health or medical help in general is an uphill battle in Puerto Rico,” said Dr. Rafael Torruella. “There’s very little knowledge about what mental health services are or what behavioral health services are and what they’re for.”

Torruella, director of Intercambios Puerto Rico, a community-based organization that promotes social integration of marginalized groups, explained that access to health care is also marred by barriers.

“So once you know where supposedly to go just to access medical help, you’ll need an insurance card and you need transportation,” Torruella explained. “Now, say you do have the card and you know where it’s at and you go to the place, that’s not access to services, that’s access to evaluation for possible services.”

The evaluation process is not a one-day process and it requires several trips throughout, Torruella said. “You need to get evaluated by a nurse, a medical doctor, some sort of administrator and by a psychiatrist. That is not in one sitting. It requires several trips and that’s with no access to transportation.”

Local mobile medical units travel to different areas of the island to see patients post-Hurricane Maria, but Torruella explained that while mobile units provide the basics and check vitals, it “would be difficult to travel and provide help, for example, to a person with bipolar disorder” or other mental health issues.

Mobile medical units didn’t make their way up to Juan Asencio, where Leonides lives. And she doesn’t know if she’ll travel the distance to seek further counseling.

Post-Hurricane Maria, Leonides Maldonado feels nervous every time it rains in Puerto Rico. The lack of transportation in the island limits her options to seek counseling after a traumatic experience during the storm. (Photo: Sofi LaLonde)

“The only one who can help me get through this is God, honestly. To have faith, which I have,” she said.

Angie Wants to Return Home, Someday

Angie and Richard signed a six month lease for their apartment in Chicago. The family eventually wants to return home, but they don’t know when or if they will be able to. Angie said they are living in uncertainty.

“We have to live day by day and [I’m] telling the boys, ‘right now we’re here and we have to make the best of today,’” she said.

Angie said she and Richard think it is important for the boys to understand that they didn’t leave Puerto Rico for a better place, or that they left because the island is bad.

“I try to explain [it] to them. It’s kind of like Puerto Rico right now is sick because it went through [Maria], but it’s gonna recover,” she said. “We’re here just for now because Papa has a job here, but when Puerto Rico gets better we can go back.”

Angie loves their neighborhood in Puerto Rico. They spent time riding their bikes, going to parks and swimming at the beach. The boys went to a public Montessori school and played instruments in the music program. Kian played the cello and Raxel just started percussion.

“We didn’t have a lot but we made the best of what we had and our life there,” she said.

Angie stands in front of the window in their three-bedroom apartment in Chicago. She doesn’t know when or if her family can return to Puerto Rico. (Photo: Sofi LaLonde)

If they go back, Angie wants the boys to be able to go to the same school but is worried about public school closures after the hurricane. She wants the people of Puerto Rico to be stronger and more proactive about fixing what was damaged and helping others.

“We want to go back to a better place, better than what it is now, at least. And it’s going to take a little bit,” she said. “A Puerto Rico that at least my children can go back to, that is more of a solid ground.”

Until Puerto Rico regains that solid ground, Angie tries to make the best of every day in Chicago.

“I feel like I’ve been displaced forcefully, but I’m going to manage it because I have to keep going.”

Photo at top: Post-Hurricane Maria, Leonides Maldonado feels nervous every time it rains in Puerto Rico. The lack of transportation in the island limits her options to seek counseling after a traumatic experience during the storm. (Sofi LaLonde/MEDILL)