Puerto Ricans begin their lives in North Carolina after Hurricane Maria :: WRAL.com

By UNC Media Hub / Videos: Anne Marie, Story: Kiana Cole, Photos: Kiana Cole

San Juan, Puerto Rico – The silence was stronger than any applause or applause.

If it were a flight on any other day before the storm, the landing would be cause for celebration. There would be applause. There would be an anxious pounding of feet and heads peering into the corridor, pbadengers ready to return to their island.

But today, four days after Hurricane Maria, everyone is still. The formerly vibrant trees look skeletal and scorched, as if fire, not rain, devastated the island. The streets are dotted with blue squares: tarpaulins where roofs used to be.

By some miracle, and despite the chaos of canceled flights and court communication, Ángel López Collazo and his father arrived in San Juan from North Carolina.

Angel's family moved to the United States when he was 10 years old, but dozens of uncles, aunts and cousins, and friends who have practically been sewn into the family tree, still live on the island. They are the reason why he returned. He came to find his 94-year-old grandmother, Virgen-Mina Collazo. There is no electricity or water on the island, and the generator that powers your oxygen tank is running out of fuel quickly.

On an island so damaged by hurricane seasons in the past, no one foresaw that Maria would not only get hurt, but also badault everything in her path. Destroyed physical needs: shelter, access to food and water. It also eliminated the intangible: futures, jobs, education.

Families like Angel's were fractured, causing more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans to flee later.

But Ángel did not think about how his grandparents and cousins ​​could do it, and it would be, some of the people torn from their homes. The future was not in Angel's mind at all. Only the present. Once her grandmother's oxygen tank surrendered, she did too.

And he had to get to her.


39 days after the storm

Angel and his father commandeered collapsed roads. They overcame the power cuts and the scarce gasoline. They loaded up the Orocovis Mountains, a city in the center of the island, to find Virgen-Mina. His family called them "chivalry", recalls Angel. And they did it.

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The Virgen-Mina was taken from a community center in Orocovis, where some of the city's elders lived. She survived the flight to North Carolina. Angel's other grandparents also went with them to North Carolina. Cousins ​​followed. The friends followed the cousins. Angel's parents were accustomed to living alone. Now they have eight additional people in their house in Chapel Hill.

On the whole island, conditions remain a challenge. When the energy is restored, it collapses again. On November 15, moments after the island met its goal of 50 percent power generation, a power cut spread through San Juan: it returned to 22 percent. On November 28, the Federal Emergency Management Agency canceled a $ 30 million contract with a Florida firm when emergency supplies were never delivered. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans still have no roof.

Fifty-five people died because of Hurricane Maria, officially. But the number does not account for indirect deaths in the aftermath of the storm. Neglect the elderly, like Virgen-Mina, whose lives were compromised because the blackout of the whole island made it almost impossible to survive. And even though he managed to survive, the death toll does not count for the other three in his facilities that died.

Now, a little over a month after it touched down, Angel and his father are back in Chapel Hill with the other eight friends and family members who evacuated the island. The talk of the dinner is about Puerto Rico. Is history. How it got so far behind with education and infrastructure. How he stayed. How the hurricane not only created new problems, but also revealed the existing ones.

"I had this perfect plan," says Gloria Isabel Orta López, Angel's 25-year-old cousin who moved to North Carolina due to the hurricane. [19659003] She was in a graduate program in Puerto Rico, studying medical technologies. She was at the top of her clbad. Now he's in Chapel Hill indefinitely, and he has to start the job search process one more time.

"When I say that people are fine or they're fine, they're alive," he says, "that's all." Nobody is great, nobody is like before the hurricane. Everyone is fighting, regardless of their social status. "

Whether you have a small house or a big house before the storm, now you have no home, she says, and Maria forced a new account on everyone, including the people who can not afford them.

"I never knew how much I love my country, and being there, until I knew I would have to stay here for a while. a long time, "he says.

Angel, now 22, has lived in the United States for 12 years, but speaks of" the homeland, "which means" the homeland, "and the deep connection that the Puerto Rican diaspora feels. by people on his island.

"What is happening in Puerto Rico with our culture, we feel it viscerally," says Angel, sitting next to his father. "I am boriqua," he says, which means "I am Boriqua. ", the indigenous name of the Puerto Rican people." Right now in times of crisis more than ever "

So, when his father told him they had to go to the island immediately after the storm, it did not seem like a choice. They woke up in the mornings to cut down trees and clear roads, spent their days waiting for two gallons of gasoline and held eight hours to withdraw money, making immediate decisions that nobody would like: "Do we take this baby food? Are we going to look for the grandmother? What do we do? "Remember Angel, but that's what you do for your country."

"The emotional anguish of trying to save people was already strong enough," he says. "Imagine being the one who needs to save."

Angel's other grandmother, Gloria Maria Lopez Rivera, knew she needed to save when her son and grandson showed up to bring her back to the US When they told her she had to leave Puerto Rico, she agreed.

Now in North Carolina, Gloria has all the needs she could want, walls, a roof, a bed, food, power, water, a home full of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

the sky, "he says, smiling at Angel.

" But it's not home. "

45 days after the storm

There's still no electricity, cellular service or water in Orocovis. Hurricane Irma on September 6.

Due to its location, Orocovis is the "Heart of P uerto Rico ", the heart of Puerto Rico. Its name is translated as "golden cove".

But what was once golden now is gone. The mango tree is the most outstanding reminder of what it was and what it is.

It had been there since before the city was founded in 1825. Its huge trunk and flowering leaves were unmistakable: from almost anywhere in the city, you could search and find in seconds, the only tree in a grbady field green. The Puerto Rican flag waved at the top.

He was the symbolic guardian of the city, one of the only constants in its almost 200 years of existence.

Maria plucked the mango tree, inflating it as if it had been weightless.

This hurricane was different.

Spiraling roads around the edges of the mountainside have been pulverized by landslides that rushed during the rain. Finding a house that has not been damaged, if not destroyed, is impossible. Mounds of rubble line the streets, like piles of snow after a blizzard that will never melt.

In Orocovis, the weather remains in "days since the storm". Forty-three, forty-four, forty-five. No energy, no water, no communication. Even so.

However, living without power, water and communication is not as bad as it could be. It means that bathing is a challenge and washing the dishes is a luxury. It means that the day ends every time the sun sets, because it becomes darker than "the mouth of the wolf", the mouth of the wolf, say the locals.

But if you are living without power and without water, that means you are alive.

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Angel's second cousin, Jandaliz Collazo, knew what happened. But he could not force himself to see it up close.

The 21-year-old girl was staying with her grandparents, Emerito and Teresa, who live on the same street. She had not been home since hurricane Maria struck 45 days ago, but if she got in the right position, she could see her house, what was left of her, from a window over her kitchen sink.

From this distance, she could see the violent way in which Hurricane Maria had swallowed her brand new house. He devoured the walls and spat out the smallest things, like doors, windows and tables.

Never knew how bad it was until today.

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When he approaches the front of his house, he stops. Look at your washing machine on the lawn. She had secured it before the storm by tying it to the wall. The hurricane took him out of the house independently, throwing him into a ditch on the other side of the street.

Keep walking.

You do not need a door to enter the house, but use it anyway. She scans the sky, walking around piles of rotten products and garbage. There used to be a roof over his kitchen.

It looks out the back of two rooms, those that do not have walls. Pillows and plywood, shirts and makeup palettes, a Mickey Mouse hat and a shattered porcelain angel are some of the possessions scattered among the windows, doors and fallen walls. She does not say anything.

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This location had been perfect. He had spent countless hours preparing the house for his growing family. She chose white paint with a pink-pink border to skirt the windows and walls. It would be a place to come back to after nursing school, a place to spend time with her husband and take home the baby she waits in a few months.

Walk through what should be a wall in what would have been the baby's room. She thinks about bringing her firstborn home in a few months. She does not know where the home is.

"It's really sad how much money was spent to prepare the house for the birth of the baby," he says in Spanish, "to go back to nothing."

This is not the way it should be. There should be walls that divide the nothing here now, doors, a fridge full of food. The house should have been out of bounds, a safe area, a shelter and security that can not be shaken or snatched away.

She should have had it for life. She had it for a week.

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Meanwhile, on top of the hill, his grandfather, Angel's uncle, Emerito Collazo, is adamant that he has been blessed.

Look around your house. There is some damage from water and seepage, but that's it.

The photos of his family and the portraits of Mary and Jesus still hang on the walls of his living room. The walls are still walls, not fragments of plywood or pieces of concrete piled up in the front yard.

Your family is alive. No one is hurt His 94-year-old mother arrived in North Carolina, and is still recovering from her oxygen tank. Emerito and his wife have accumulated food, and he has a car that can take him to and from a nearby waterfall, where he fills water basins so they can cook, rinse and bathe. Emerito is blessed.

And yet, after the storm, the retiree has returned to work, designing a rooftop water system made of cubes and cubes, doing what he can to help his neighbors. Surviving.

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He feels anxious and frustrated, he says. He is not optimistic that light or water will return soon. He hardly sleeps, worried about his mother, thinking about his five brothers, he is one of 12, that he has not been able to reach.

"We've never been through such a bad hurricane where communication is completely low," he says, sitting in his rocking chair. "There is not even communication between brothers."

His somber expression turns into a smile when he points to a corner of the kitchen. If you get between the freezer and the counter, sometimes you can get enough signal to communicate with your sister Nereida, Angel's mother, in North Carolina. This is how he discovers how his mother and his brothers are doing on the island.

He knows that his sister feels guilty for how different her life looks. Nereida cries when she thinks about the grocery store in Chapel Hill, or in her washer and dryer, or how she took her mother from home.

But Emerito understands it. It was an emergency, he says, and decisions had to be made.

"It's sad not to say goodbye," he says, "but we had to move fast."

He knows his mother could not have survived at Orocovis for much longer. Orocovis has become an island on an island, says Emerito. And he is not sure when, or if, that will change.

"This situation is dividing the families because they are leaving in search of a rescue," he says.

Look across the room at the portrait of his son, and the daughter of his son, Jandaliz, since he was little and when he was alive. Emerito's eyes moisten when he thinks of his granddaughter. His house was made of wood, his house is concrete: that is the difference between a house that was destroyed and a relatively undamaged one.

Nothing is the same.

"It's not normal," he says. "It's not normal to live like this for anyone"

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47 days after the storm

On the night of November 7, Virgen-Mina died at her daughter's house in Chapel Hill. [19659003] She told her family that she wanted to die at home in Puerto Rico. Maria stole that.

For the rest of Angel's family now in North Carolina, the future is still uncertain. It was a necessary step, they agree, especially for their cousins ​​seeking to start their careers. Puerto Rico must rebuild, but it must also conquer the obstacles it has always faced. They are not sure how long it will take.

Back in Puerto Rico, the Mayor of San Juan Carmen Yulín Cruz has recognized why so many people had to leave.

"People always want the best for their families, and that's very important," she said. "Our job here is to make sure they can come back."

And he knows that those who could not or did not want to leave the most devastated parts, like Orocovis, still have a great need.

"We have seen the light at the end of the tunnel in San Juan," he said. "That's not the story in the rest of Puerto Rico."

For the Lopez family inside and outside of Puerto Rico, she had a message.

"I only know that you are part of us and we are a part of you," she said. "We are all one, and our job here is to make sure things are better so that you choose to come back with us."

"You are boriqua no matter where you are"

  Puerto Rico

Sumner Park and Heather Grace contributed to this report.

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