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Two years later, Hurricane Maria survivors speak to displacement and starting over

Lillian Colón, IBERO


On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria touched down in Puerto Rico. Thousands of families relocated to Rochester in the months that followed. 

Karla Reyes Ríos is from San Juan, Puerto Rico. She’s 23 years old and a mother of three. She describes Hurricane Maria as dangerous and chaotic.

“Wow, the water -- you could swim in the water,” she says. “The windows crashed down and the door couldn’t close because literally the water was coming through.”

About 50 miles south of San Juan, on the southern coast, Jose Nieves Ortíz was also riding out the storm with his family. He is 78 years old. 

Credit Noelle E. C. Evans / WXXI News
Jose Nieves Ortiz at Ibero's Spanish-language Senior Center, Centro de Oro.

“I saw through the door, because the door was made of glass. I saw pieces of my neighbors’ homes going past the house,” he says. “I thought, 'My God, help them.' And through all my worry...I thought, 'My God, please let nothing happen to my children or my home.' ”

They are only two examples of around 130,000 people displaced by Hurricanes Maria and Irma. More than 3,000 people died.

Maria hit only two weeks after Irma touched down. Between the storms, Reyes Ríos had endured the loss of a pregnancy. But she felt she had to keep going to support her family.

“My children are small. They didn’t know what was happening. But for me it was super intense, super, super intense because I had to literally feed them cold spaghetti because it was what we had to eat,” she says.The two hurricanes devastated the island’s infrastructure. There was no water and no electricity.

“I could be in line to buy ice,” she says. “And I knew that I was the last person in line to get the last ice they had. And behind me there were around 40 more people. And I knew that if I was going to buy the ice, they would go without it.”

She says it was frustrating. She felt for the other families, but still had her own to care for.

She came to Rochester about a month after Hurricane Maria. It was her first time ever leaving Puerto Rico, and her first time ever taking a plane. And she says she was the only person in her family with a local contact who could help her. 

“I made this decision for my kids. I decided to leave, and leave my mom and my brother there and help them from here,” she says.

Reyes Ríos says she lost her mother to cancer in February 2018.

She is one of between 5,000 and 8,000 people and families from Puerto Rico who arrived in Rochester after the storms, according to Julio Sáenz of Ibero-American Action League, a human services agency with a long history of helping the Latinx community.

Fatima Grullón, a case manager with Ibero, says she worked with hundreds of displaced people. 

Credit Noelle E. C. Evans / WXXI News
Fatima Grullon is a Spanish and English-speaking case manager at Ibero.

“I can see that one of their biggest traumas was to leave their land and their hometown and their families,” Grullón says. “A lot of them had to leave their families there to settle down here and then come and get them after they were settled in Rochester so, it was painful.”

Some, like Nieves Ortíz, had family members with them. The 78-year-old now goes to Ibero’s Spanish-language senior center and says he’s comfortable. His daughter also looks after him. But he says one thing he struggled with shortly upon arrival was the winter.

“Little by little, I adapted. Because when I arrived it was bad -- the cold and the snow storms. In Puerto Rico, we don’t have snow, and here it’s so bad,” he says.

In fact, Rochester received more than 120 inches of snow that winter.

Ibero’s Julio Sáenz says that people were arriving in flip-flops and with no coat. Ibero and other organizations formed a coalition to address immediate needs -- like getting people winter clothes.

Through Ibero, Nieves Ortíz now has access to senior programming, and Reyes Rios has access to day care. 

But Reyes Ríos, like others, is still struggling to get by. Her main obstacle has been affording a place to live. 

Grullón’s job is to help people in similar situations to connect with basic resources, like health care, job placement, and housing. Two years later, some of those issues are still ongoing.“Still housing is still a big need. It’s still also a big crisis in Rochester and we are trying to fight hard to meet this need,” she says.

At first, Reyes Ríos was on public assistance, as she was pregnant. Then she says she got a job and started paying rent with her wages. Recently, she lost that job.

“What happened was that the job was 30 minutes from here and this complicated things a lot for my kid’s schooling,” she says.

She says the language barrier was also an issue. She’s back to filling out paperwork for public assistance to afford housing. She says she wants to take English classes, and to make sure her kids learn the language as well, saying that she doesn’t want them to run into the same obstacles she’s facing.

As for going back to Puerto Rico, Nieves Ortíz says he’d like to go for the winter if he could. But Reyes Ríos says she doesn’t plan on it.

“To think of it all, I like Rochester a lot,” she says. “I don’t think of going back for now. I lost my mom, but I have my little brother there. Really, I don’t miss anything except them.”

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.