Nearly one year ago, on Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane María, with its 155-mph winds and 38 inches of rainfall, barrelled into Puerto Rico, leaving one of the largest and longest disasters in modern U.S. history in its path. The entire island was left without power, 1.5 million people lacked potable water, 75,000 homes were demolished and an additional 300,000 were damaged. In the months following the catastrophic storm, Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island long-suffering under U.S. colonialism, weathered additional political and economic gales that led to an even graver, though slower, calamity. More than 200,000 Boricuas left home for the contiguous U.S., most still not returning, seeking shelter on the couches of relatives, health care for ailing elders, education for children whose schools closed down and jobs to pay for the bills that continued to pile up, despite all their misfortune. A housing crisis ensued, a mental health extremity emerged and the death toll, long contentiously held at 64, rose to almost 3,000.
President Donald Trump, who recently described his response to Hurricane María as an “incredible, unsung success,” arrived on the island two weeks following the storm, visiting the wealthiest towns, rather than the most impoverished and hardest hit, and throwing paper towels at a crowd of relief workers. Federal aid has since been much of the same: slow, shoddy and scornful. In July, FEMA released a report acknowledging its failure in aiding Puerto Rico, noting that they did not send adequate supplies to the island before María hit and that the agency was understaffed and had unqualified personnel assisting in relief. Instead of showing empathy, President Trump blamed the people of Puerto Rico for the disaster, called survivors unappreciative and has ruled all criticism — including data that puts the death toll at 2,975 — as fabricated efforts by Democrats to make him “look as bad as possible.”
On the archipelago, women led some of the earliest relief endeavors: clearing debris from streets, bringing coffee to neighbors, feeding their communities and marching for their future. Today, while electricity has been restored for most of the island and, aside from some torn street signs, blue-tarp roofs and twisted palm trees, San Juan, the island’s capital, looks much like it did before September 2017. Women across the U.S. territory are still rebuilding, now hoping to construct a more sustainable Puerto Rico. Here, puertorriqueñas stepping in where local and federal governments have not, tell us why they remain dedicated to the restoration of their country one year after Hurricane María.
Tara Rodríguez Besosa, Sustainable Agriculture
Credit: Adnelly Marichal / Fondo de Resiliencia de Puerto Rico
Tara Rodríguez Besosa’s local organic produce storefront and restaurant El Departamento de La Comida was one of countless establishments wiped out by Hurricane María. “Anxious and stressed out” when she saw news reports of the storm’s calamity, the Santurce-based Rodríguez Besosa, who was in the United States at the time, felt an urgency to rebuild, but not necessarily her commercial kitchen. “I think we were more worried about what would happen with the farmers than our own operation,” Rodríguez, 34, told FIERCE. With the help of Americas for Conservation + the Arts (AFC+A) and a collective of local food advocates and sustainable farming groups, she co-founded Fondo de Resiliencia de Puerto Rico, a 24-month action-based campaign hoping to impact 200 sustainable food projects on the island. They do this by sending food and seeds to farmers devastated by the hurricane and thinking about long-term solutions and actions to rescue Puerto Rico’s local agriculture and food sovereignty through sustainable farming.
Why She Helps:
“I think it’s a collective thing. The longer it takes for farmers to get back to farming, the longer it takes for food to grow, and the longer it takes to have food in our kitchens. Farming is the No. 1 priority because food is the No. 1 priority right now. We are supporting farmers because farmers feed the community. And I use food as a domino effect tool. We need to get people back on track, and this time around, more than ever, make sure they have even more resilient practices in place and systems so that for the next storm, they are better. That was the main urgency.”
Christine Nieves, Solar Energy
Credit: Peter Decherney
In Maríana, a small village in the eastern municipality of Humacao, Christine Nieves, along with her partner, started Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo less than two weeks after the storm hit. The Project for Mutual Aid, as it translates in English, started as a community center that offered home-cooked meals, clean-up efforts and companionship to locals. But after the center caught the attention of a U.S.-based group called Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, which was inspired by the project’s community service and helped by pooling donations for solar power equipment, it blossomed into something more revolutionary. Local construction workers and electricians came together to put the donations to use, installing a solar-powered micro-grid in Maríana that is owned and controlled by the community. Before electricity was back up on most of the island, locals in Maríana were able to head to the Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo to power their electronics and maintain day-to-day activities. Today, Nieves, 30, is working to transform her community into a sustainable village and advocating for the development and practice of community-level transgenerational, autonomous and adaptable hurricane preparedness throughout the island.
Why She Helps:
“After the hurricane, I felt the sense of the end of the world. It felt very dark, because there was no electricity or artificial light, but also dark in the sense that nothing was known; there was no information. It felt like a complete loss of control… But I understood that this feeling of lack of control and vulnerability would continue to happen in our changing climate, so [a solar grid] seemed like a clear solution that would have the least amount of human suffering. The government thinks of solutions that cost the least amount of money, so they fixed the electric system to be what it was before, which means when another storm comes, not even a hurricane, it will be down again but cheap to replace… But we think that the only way we will be able to ensure the safety of the people is by installing solar systems and wind power systems that are retractable and can be stored away. It’s incredibly urgent. It’s about how many lives are we going to lose if we don’t go the solar power way. We saw how many people who had to leave because they couldn’t refrigerate their insulin because they had no access to energy. It not only makes sense for the livelihood of Puerto Ricans but because it’s the only thing that makes sense in our world right now.”
Ariadna Godreau-Aubert, Legal Education and Assistance
A human rights lawyer, Ariadna Godreau-Aubert realized quickly that with the immediate needs of her fellow Boricuas, food and water, they would need to know their legal rights in order to obtain the aid they required. That’s why she started Ayuda Legal Huracán María, a collective of lawyers and law students in Puerto Rico and throughout the diaspora that work with communities to educate them on disaster legal aid and make them aware of the assistance they have a right to. As months passed, and the most pressing demands of the people were slowly being met, Godreau-Aubert, 33, recognized a growing problem that demanded her group’s attention: housing. With increased development plans, lack of paperwork and deepened poverty leading to evictions and displacement, Ayuda Legal Huracán María currently helps survivors battling the housing crisis on the island.
Why She Helps:
“I was shocked, like everyone else affected by the hurricane, but I felt an urge to come out and try to rebuild something. I’ve always been a community lawyer… It’s important to focus on things that are fundamental to everybody but more disproportionality in marginalized communities. This sometimes has to do with access to education, work, gender violence and poverty, but, for me, the hurricane made it evident how fragile the housing system is. Nearly 300,000 were affected. We still see houses with tarps or women with kids who are homeless, so it’s urgent and we wanted to place all our resources to focus on this. I think the work needed around housing will be needed for a long time. The crisis is going to worsen, not just because we are in hurricane season, but because the needs are not being attended, because government policies are not directed to attend those people of the community. I’d love to say I won’t be doing this because it’s not needed, but I know we will for a while.”
Griselle Vila, Feeding the People
Credit: Griselle Vila
As a long-time private chef in San Juan, Griselle Vila, 33, knew the best way for her to help her people after the disaster was through food. When famed chef José Andrés started operating his World Central Kitchen at the coliseum in San Juan, Vila was there to volunteer. With her help, and that of thousands of others, WCK served as many as 150,000 classic Puerto Rican dishes a day. “By feeding them, we were giving them more than food,” Villa, who is now executive chef at the San Juan WCK facility, told FIERCE. “We’ve walked in a house, where a mother came to us and said, ‘let me show you something. You see that wall there? I was able to build that because we were able to save money on food while you were feeding me.’” Today, WCK’s operations have shifted, with Villa now working hard to educate farmers in Puerto Rico on sustainable techniques and providing them with seeds, equipment and grants to increase production with the hope of helping Puerto Rico become less dependent on food imports.
Why She Helps:
“I am a chef, so, for me, it was only natural that if there was a feeding operation, that’s what I would join. But I was a private chef, so this is the total opposite, but I fell in love with it. I changed my life completely. There’s something very gratifying about helping people, seeing people happy. Helping someone makes them feel special. Giving someone a home-cooked meal, something that has the flavors their family would make at home, also gives them a sense of security. It was giving them hope. Through food, they realized they were not alone.”
Dr. Blanca Ortiz Torres, Mental Health & Community Empowerment
Courtesy of Dr. Blanca Ortiz Torres
After three days of feeling “shocked” and “paralyzed,” Dr. Blanca Ortiz Torres, a community psychologist, professor and Associate Dean at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, and her husband, a clinical psychologist, knew a mental health crisis would follow behind Hurricane María. With a pressing need to help, the two convened with other psychological associates on the island and eventually started servicing individuals and families in shelters who had been displaced by the storm. “We realized shelters weren’t prepared to provide comprehensive care to those people, people who were idle, looked like robots, because they lost everything,” Ortiz Torres, 65, told us. Together, the group provided medical and psycho-social care. One month later, Ortiz Torres found herself in San Isidro, a poor and oft-forgotten town in Canovanas with a large population of Dominican immigrants, many undocumented, and Afro-Puerto Ricans. Since October, she, along with a team of mental health educators and students, have worked with the community, allowing them to discuss their emotions and providing them with opportunities, often through arts and sports, to work through them, while also empowering them to advocate for themselves and supporting those efforts.
Why She Helps:
“There was a general feeling that there was not an adequate response from the government and we needed to do something, and that was everywhere. I think we recovered solely, although not fully because we are still recovering, because of the efforts of civil society. We are amazed by the creativity and the initiatives many rural and urban communities have taken. They did not wait for the government. And I wouldn’t say it’s about resilience but about self-mobilization, autogestion and self-determination, people doing what they need to do for themselves. And I don’t mean to say the government shouldn’t take the responsibility they have, they should, and I think it’s criminal what has been happening, what the president has been saying about Puerto Rico — it’s so despicable. But the people have demonstrated that they’re powerful and that they look for the resources and are transforming the response from communities in situations like this, That’s a lesson learned for the future.”