The holiday season, particularly Christmas, is a special time in Puerto Rico. Music blares in homes and in the streets, with ‘parrandas’ (traveling party bands) spreading joy with their guitars, maracas, and güiros, inviting others to join in. The entire month of December is one big celebration that reaches its peak during Three Kings Day on January 6th. Having celebrated Christmas many times in Puerto Rico, I remember all, too well, the energy, the food, and the celebrations. This year was quite different.
I arrived in Puerto Rico the day before thanksgiving to distribute water filters to the residents on the west side of the island. I raised money through a gofundme campaign and purchased water filters for families in need. There were many families who still lacked basic necessities, such as running water, electricity, and adult incontinence diapers. I went door-to-door and visited folks in the hardest hit areas in the mountainous regions. Some were elderly folks on oxygen tanks, while others were, either, bedridden or in wheelchairs. It was heartbreaking to see, after two months of Hurricane Maria, that their situation remained dire.
Below are pictures of some of the residents I visited. While their names will not be published out of respect, their stories will be shared to bring attention to their sad reality. Many lives have been changed overnight in Puerto Rico, and many are still uncertain about their future and their kids’ future. But one thing is for certain, Puerto Ricans deserve to live in dignity.
As of thanksgiving, the gentleman in the wheelchair still had no electricity nor running water. The woman standing next to me is his neighbor, who lives nearby, and she checks on him daily and brings him coffee. She is voluntarily serving as his advocate and was frustrated by the lack of response. The debris still had not been removed and it has become a haven for rats and snakes. She had requested clothing for him, as the red shorts he had on was the only item of clothing he had left from the hurricane. The gentleman still lives in this home, even though the roof of his bathroom is gone, the front door is a make-shift piece of metal that is pulled over at night, and a gap still exists where mosquitoes and rodents gain entrance. His home should be considered uninhabitable but he feels that this is his best option.
The gentleman below had been involved in a motorcycle accident and was told that his left leg may need to be amputated. The family still had no electricity and no running water, and had been collecting rain water for bathing. Part of his roof was gone and there was damage to the walls of his house. When I handed him the water filter and mentioned that he could now filter rain water and that it would be safe to drink, he was overjoyed.
I provided much-needed water filters, but there is still a great deal more that is needed. Beyond the critical importance of long-term restoration of electricity and water, Puerto Ricans need to believe that there is a future in Puerto Rico. Though this catastrophic event has been horrific in many ways, it may also serve as a catalyst for positive change, and I believe that with hard work, it will lead to a dignified future for Puerto Rico. The prospect of a better way forward is worth every effort.