8 Puerto Rican Women On How Hurricane Maria Impacted Them
It's been one year since Hurricane Maria made landfall and devastated the island territory of Puerto Rico. The effects of the storm, and political negligence thereafter, have sparked conversations about infrastructure, independence, and political movements. For women on the island and in the diaspora, it meant watching their home and families irrevocably change. Bustle talked to Puerto Rican women from the island and in the diaspora to see how women were affected by Hurricane Maria a year later.
Calling the storm and its aftereffects shocking would be understating the damage. "To go back home and see the place — your place — to go back home and see it, it looked like a bomb went off on the entire island," lawyer Stephanie Llanes tells Bustle. "I can't even describe the feeling of dread and grief. It felt like a piece of yourself died."
The official death toll was raised to nearly 3,000 people just weeks before the storm's first anniversary. The large increase in the official death toll — from 64 to 2,975 deaths, according to NPR — confirmed what many Puerto Ricans already knew: the island endured a high level of destruction. As if the lives lost weren't devastating enough, Reuters reported that Hurricane Maria cut off the power to more than 1.5 million homes and businesses. It took 11 months to restore power to all customers throughout the island, according to ABC News.
The island hasn't been the only place to feel the effects of the storm. In March, the City University of New York’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies published a report that estimated at least 135,592 Puerto Ricans fled for the mainland after the storm. The study found that Puerto Ricans (who are American citizens) have settled in 49 of the 50 states, with population concentrations in Florida and the northeastern U.S.
The storm has fundamentally altered the lives of hundreds of thousands of people — here are just a few of their stories.
Camille Padilla Dalmau, 27
The storm made Camille Padilla Dalmau, 27, realize she needed to go home. "I’ve been wanting to move back to Puerto Rico for a couple years. There are some of us who feel like we're almost forcefully exiled [from the island] — either financially or through acculturation. It was kind of ingrained in me that an education in the U.S. was better," she tells Bustle.
She had left Puerto Rico for her undergraduate and graduate educations and became a journalist. Dalmau was covering Puerto Rico's economic crisis as a reporter in New York when the storm hit. Hurricane Maria exacerbated what she had already seen and been told. "When Maria hit, it was hard for all of us. The stories are really heartbreaking, and it feels like a lot of it didn’t get covered," she says.
Her life in New York started to make her incredibly sad. "I would turn on the light, and I would cry. I would drink water, and I would cry. I would look at trees and cry," she shares. "Everything made me so upset.
She went back to Puerto Rico in November, and made the move in July.
"The most important reason I came [back] was for my family. I wanted to help out my parents," she tells Bustle.
But there was a sense of duty to her home, she says. "I want to do my part, right? I want to be a part of the change," Dalmau says. "I see so much potential here."
Mónica Ivelisse Feliú-Mójer, 34
Mónica Ivelisse Feliú-Mójer, 34, wasn't surprised by the fact that Puerto Rico's infrastructure was devastated by the storm in September 2017. "I knew that people would go long months without power and water," she tells Bustle. "However, I did not anticipate for how long it would be difficult to get food, bottled water, gas, batteries, and those kinds of supplies. That was heartbreaking and scary."
Living in San Francisco at the time, she was "constantly worried" about her family, particularly her parents who she described as elderly.
But the storm brought Puerto Ricans together in a completely new way, she says. The divisions between those living on the island and those living away collapsed in favor of working together.
"I think Maria was a turning point for the diaspora," she tells Bustle. "There has always been tension between people living on the island and those who do not, but after the disaster there was no 'de aquí o de allá,'" from here or there. "We were all pulling for Puerto Rico."
Feliú-Mójer has returned to the island three times since the storm, once at the six-month mark and twice in July. "Some days are more difficult than others, but despite the anger and frustration, I choose to remain hopeful because I see many community leaders creating the change Puerto Rico needs, from the ground up," she tells Bustle.
Denisse Rodriguez, 33
Denisse Rodriguez, 33, says watching the destruction of Hurricane Maria was "horrendous" — but it was the aftermath that made everything so much worse. "I had to wait 48 hours before I had any contact with my family, since phones had no signal for days and roads were blocked," Rodriguez tells Bustle. "Some friends had to wait two weeks before they had any contact at all with their families," she says.
One month after the hurricane, there was uncertainty on the island, Rodriguez says. But six months later, the fragility of the island's infrastructure couldn't be ignored. "It is unbelievable how fragile our energy and digital infrastructure is," Rodriguez says. "How did we allow this to happen?"
A bright spot in the last year has been the sensitivity of people in the continental U.S., Rodriguez says. "Absolutely everyone I talk to is super sensitive and compassionate about the situation," she says. "It's shocking how all of them have apologized for the President's behavior. They get it."
Stephanie Llanes, 30
For Stephanie Llanes, the way the situation in Puerto Rico developed in her lifetime was "definitely influential in my decision to go to law school." Now that mission is even more urgent for the 30-year-old lawyer.
"One of my grandmother’s sisters passed away from the hurricane. She was elderly and diabetic. When the hurricane hit, they were immobile for days. She was unable to get proper insulin care," Llanes tells Bustle.
Llanes quickly points out that her family's story isn't unique. "It's stories like that that show it's not just the hurricane, but the lack of infrastructure that make these things worse," she says.
And she feels the urgency and need for action. "The urgency we saw under PROMESA is exacerbated," Llanes tells Bustle, using the acronym for the bill — Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act — signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2016. It established an unelected economic-relief control board in order to help restructure and pay back Puerto Rico's $70 billion debt.
Llanes wants to use the law to support Puerto Ricans and their future. "I wanted to use the law in ways that support those efforts, to make sure my people and my future children will be able to go to Puerto Rico and know who they are," she tells Bustle.
Eliana, who asked to be identified by her first name only, was living in a fairly rural part of Puerto Rico when the storm made landfall. The eye of the hurricane went over her town. "The first few days were absolutely terrifying because we had no radio signal, no word on what was happening," she says.
But the bigger impact of the storm was still to come. A tree landed on her family's emergency water supply, so they had to purify rainwater. Then one of their neighbors was one of the first publicized leptospirosis deaths.
"Honestly, we were running on automatic, we had no time to cry or take in what had happened, both of us just immediately got to work as if it was the new norm," she tells Bustle, referring to her brother.
They were without water until January and didn't get electricity back until early April, the 27-year-old says. She's not sure if things stabilized or if they just got used to everything. "When the lights came back it felt like now I had to get used to having electricity and running water," she says. "I didn’t even celebrate and to be honest, that was the biggest impact for me because now I could walk around the house and actually see where I was going."
She says the hurricane's consequences are still being felt. "We're only just now getting the real consequences of the hurricane. This was definitely not an effect of just the current U.S. administration," she tells Bustle. "Everything that was 'suddenly' popping up in the media of local corruption and federal inequality was nothing new."
Eliana says she hopes the focus stays there. "I just wish that the media would start focusing on that again because for once we actually felt heard," she tells Bustle.
One woman, who asked to remain anonymous, attempted to move to Florida after the storm, but ended up back in Puerto Rico when it didn't work out. "When I became unemployed at the beginning of 2017, I decided to give [moving to the mainland] a try. I wasn’t thrilled to but I felt it was something I needed to do because of the economic crisis in the island," the woman, 26, tells Bustle. She had made plans to move to the mainland before Hurricane Maria happened, but says the storm derailed her plans.
"I had to spend some of my savings to survive the months we were without electricity and water service because the prices for basic necessity items such as water, batteries, and food went ridiculously up," she tells Bustle.
When she ended up back in Puerto Rico, she got a job in her field and was able to be with her family. But this hasn't outweighed how "not great" things remain on the island, she says. "We have an incompetent government, and the U.S. Congress imposed a government board that violates the basic principles of democracy," she says, referring to the board put in place by Obama's PROMESA. "We are in the middle of hurricane season again, and you can see the fear in everyone's eyes. We don’t want to experience something like that again."
Katherine Yannice, 28
When Katherine Yannice, who asked to be identified by her first and middle names, remembers the end of September 2017, she remembers being physically affected because of how stressed she was. She watched from Florida as the storm pounded Puerto Rico, where her family was scattered.
One month after the storm, she brought supplies for her family still on the island. "When I went to Naguabo one month after María, there was absolutely no service on that side of the island even though San Juan had some," she tells Bustle. "There were trailers sitting in the main plaza of the town for days, unopened."
Only recently did Katherine, 28, begin to feel like the island was rebounding. "Once we started realizing that the government wasn’t going to help us, and we started stepping up and helping each other rebuild, that’s when real progress was being made," she tells Bustle.
One example of this was her godmother's congregation that turned their church into a community center complete with supplies like diapers and food for anyone in need. "They managed to get their satellite to work enough to set up internet and helped people apply for FEMA aide online," she tells Bustle.
Gabriela M., 27
Gabriela M. from Mayagüez says the hurricane's impact was clear as she traveled around the island — from the west coast where she was during the hurricane, back to the major metropolitan area she lived and worked in. "There was debris everywhere I turned and for some municipalities I visited — mainly, to make sure that my friends were OK or to spend time with family — it was as if it had happened yesterday," the 27-year-old tells Bustle.
Even when she made it back to her home, it wasn't normal.
"I didn't have power, I couldn't store anything that was non-perishable. I had to eat out or eat whatever my boyfriend's mother had set aside for us from FEMA boxes all the way from Añasco, like cookies, chips, crackers, chili, baked beans, and other canned or sugary goods," she tells Bustle. "This went on for months."
"A year has passed, and I certainly feel that things have improved," Gabriela says, "but they haven't gotten better."
The biggest thing Gabriela wants non-boricuas to take away from the last year of rebuilding Puerto Rico is how preventable she says this could have been. "I think one of the things we do have to emphasize is that these deaths could have been preventable had the local and federal response not been so inefficient. Timing, really, was everything," she tells Bustle.
The devastation caused by Hurricane Maria and the American government's admitted ineptitude in the weeks following has caused untold devastation and harm to an island ravaged by decades of neglectful policies. It's important to bear witness to these stories, and to demand more for Puerto Ricans.