Hurricane Maria family resettles in Riverview, only to be left homeless by lightning strike

Published June 16 2018
Updated June 16 2018

RIVERVIEW — It was the most routine of errands, shopping for a cooler and some shorts.

Joel Jaca and Arelys Gomez, both 40, had turned an important corner, miles away from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

They had finally gotten out of their relief hotel and into their own apartment. Jaca was starting a job at the post office.

But Gomez’s sense of well-being was shattered by a phone call. Her mother, Carmen Cabrera, was screaming about a fire she was trying to escape with a family that included three children and their 90-year-old great-grandfather.

Billows of black smoke greeted the couple when they arrived. Their children, ages 9 to 17, clutched armfuls of toys as they ran out the door.

They slept that night in a neighbor’s living room. Jaca didn’t have a cooler for his job. He wound up using his daughter’s lunch box.

Now the family of seven, spanning four generations, are back at same Clarion Inn that housed them after Hurricane Maria.

Joel Jaca made his living back in Puerto Rico as a casino employee.

He, his wife and their children lived in Rio Grande, a tourist mecca in the northeastern part of the island.

Their concrete home was sturdy enough to withstand Maria’s 155 mile-per-hour winds although, Gomez said, "it sounded like the windows were going to explode."

It was the aftermath that drove them away.

With cellular service down, it took an hour to reach the wooden home of Jose Cabrera, who had ridden out the storm with Gomez’s mother. Carmen Cabrera had spent the hours trying to keep water out after Maria tore through the roof.

The family did not have drinking water, electricity or fuel for their generator. Medicines could not be refrigerated. Hospitals were lacking. Schools were closed for three months.

"We did not lose everything like other people, but we wanted the best for the kids," Joel Jaca said.

He hoped that, with his experience, he could get a job online at a Hard Rock casino on the mainland.

He learned that the Clarion Inn in Tampa was buying flights for Puerto Ricans who were getting transitional shelter assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The family arrived in January with suitcases of clothes, documents, family photographs and laptops.

The children — Nelson, now 17; Mia, 12; and Fabiola, 9 — started school in February. They lived at the Clarion Inn until late April, when an apartment came available at Allegro Palm.

Gomez couldn’t wait to turn the empty apartment into a home. She and Jaca got beds for the children. They hung photos on the walls.

Then, on Wednesday night, a storm changed all that. Investigators believe a bolt of lightning caused the fire that consumed two buildings, destroying 24 apartments and leaving about 100 people homeless.

The five who were in Gomez and Jaca’s apartment ran out with only what they could immediately grab.

Jose Cabrera took his wallet.

The girls grabbed their plush toys and some electronic devices.

Nelson dumped his school supplies out of his backpack and shoved in a change of clothes. He took the apartment key. He was carrying his shoes in his arms as he ran. He dropped one.

"I started kicking shoes so I did not have to spend the time to grab it," he said.

"It was just a panic."

• • •

Having been through two disasters, the family can remark on the differences between them.

The hurricane left them without important resources, Nelson said.

But the fire destroyed a lot more.

All their documents — from birth certificates to car insurance forms — were spread out on a bed when the fire started. Gomez had recently bought a file box and was going to organize them.

They lost the keys to their van, which were replaced when a local couple heard about their hardship and paid for another set.

The authorities would not let them re-enter the apartment, Joel Jaca said. So they do not know how much was destroyed by the flames and how much by the water from the fire hoses.

They are living out of two rooms in the Clarion Inn, paid for with a gift card from the American Red Cross.

The plush toys that the girls had carried were sprawled across one of the beds Saturday as Nelson sat on an air mattress on the floor.

A Mickey Mouse doll, a gift from the Red Cross, sat in the corner. On top of the bureau was donated bottled water.

Jose Cabrera was hospitalized Thursday with pressure in his chest, Gomez said. They released him Friday.

"To be honest, we don’t have plans right now," Joel Jaca said.

They need a long-term place to live. And the more they spend on the hotel, the less they will have for an apartment deposit.

"We believe deeply in God, and we know God will help us get out of this situation," Joel Jaca said. "Something bigger will come. I just have that faith, that if you work hard and be positive maybe a big opportunity will come."

He’s been going to his job at the Tarpon Springs post office. He’d like to move the family closer to his work.

But, for now, the hotel is home.

"Sometimes I think I’m having a dream," Carmen Cabrera, the children’s grandmother, said.

"But when I open my eyes it’s not a dream."

Contact Bre Bradham at and (803) 460-9001.