TAMPA — Five years ago, as Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, Miriam Nieves and her elderly parents barricaded themselves in their home on the island’s eastern edge. They took turns pressing the kitchen table against the front door to keep it from blowing in.
Nieves, who was 26 at the time, remembers the howling wind as the near-category five storm cut power lines and collapsed buildings. She remembers the devastation that followed, seeing the stripped land in morning light and thinking the mountains “looked naked.”
She remembers the day she got news that her sister, who was living in Florida at the time, had bought her a one-way ticket to Tampa. It was the day she decided to leave home.
“I was crying because I didn’t want to leave my island,” Nieves said. “I wanted to stay with my parents, but my mom said to me, ‘I gave you wings to fly, I didn’t give you wings to stay.’”
She packed a bag and boarded a plane to Florida in December 2017.
For the last five years Nieves has watched her community slowly rebuild from afar, feeling a mix of hope and frustration, longing and peace in her new life on the U.S. mainland.
Although distance from the event had provided a semblance of stabilization and a path out of disaster, reminders of haphazard relief efforts and a lack of government accountability remain. Thousands still live in damaged homes, with roofs patched by blue tarps. Unreliable power persists.
Then, last Tuesday, just two days after the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a new storm shattered all illusions of a quick recovery.
For Puerto Ricans around Florida like Nieves, the storm has meant an onset of grief and worry for people back home.
“I haven’t been able to sleep,” Nieves said. “We’re reliving trauma.”
A switch to self-reliance
For many of the more than 1 million Puerto Ricans living in Florida, watching the destruction back home has served as a call to action.
Jeannie Vigil Calderin, who lives in Tampa and runs the nonprofit organization Somos Puerto Rico Tampa, said when the news of Fiona came, her organization and others like it got to work mobilizing.
Calderin founded the nonprofit to provide aid to Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria in 2017. It was a way to combat feelings of helplessness in the weeks after the storm struck.
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A central lesson learned in the five years since Maria struck, she said, is that there’s a lack of accountability from those in power.
“We cannot depend on the government. They’re not doing what they’re supposed to do, so we have to take control,” Calderin said.
That’s shaped the way her nonprofit is focusing on relief efforts this time around. The group has a GoFundMe page to collect donations to buy food and supplies. But the main need? Light.
“Our goal is for every household in Puerto Rico to have a solar-powered lantern,” Calderin said.
Collecting money to supply solar-powered lanterns is also a goal for the nonprofit Puerto Rico Rises, said Sara Lopez, the organization’s Florida chapter president.
Since Fiona hit, Lopez said she’s been getting up at 5 a.m. and returning home past midnight. Her days are spent answering WhatsApp messages and coordinating resources between people in Florida and those on the island.
“It’s terrible. We are still recovering from Maria. We still have hundreds of people living under blue tarps waiting for their homes to be fixed,” Lopez said. “We weren’t ready for another hurricane.”
Maria taught Puerto Ricans lessons in self-reliance, she said. After the storm five years ago, she said, people expected government agencies to organize and provide relief, but for many, help never came. When it did come, it didn’t come quickly enough — or in a sustainable way.
She said this time, Puerto Ricans are helping their neighbors and clear debris from roads.
“They are not waiting for the government to send a tractor,” Lopez said. “They are doing it by hand.”
No place like home
Much like was the case following Maria, Lopez and Calderin said their organizations anticipate a wave of Puerto Rican migrants — both those displaced during this storm, and those weary of disaster — to resettle in Florida.
Those individuals, much like the people who stay in Puerto Rico, will require extra resources and support, they said.
“People who resettle, they are leaving their jobs and their families and safety nets behind,” Calderin said.
Elizabeth Aranda, a professor of sociology at the University of South Florida, studied the effects of leaving home on Puerto Ricans who resettled in Florida after hurricanes Maria and Irma.
She said that roughly as many as 177,000 Puerto Ricans left the archipelago the year after hurricanes Maria and Irma hit the territory. Many arrived in Hillsborough County.
As part of a research team, Aranda, who is Puerto Rican, surveyed 146 of the people who relocated to Tampa Bay. Of those sampled, about 25% ultimately chose to return, many to destroyed homes.
The study found that people chose to return often because they couldn’t afford living in the mainland United States. Aranda said the participants struggled to get jobs that matched their qualifications. They found themselves unable to attain stable housing or safe living conditions.
“What could lead people to go back to such a state of vulnerability and disrepair?” Aranda pondered. “I think it speaks to how hard it is to make a living in this country — if you’re either poor or working class, if you’re a member of a minority group, if you don’t speak English, if you’re discriminated against.”
It’s an experience that Nieves knows well.
After joining her sister in the Tampa Bay region at the end of 2017, Nieves said she struggled to find work.
She was a social worker with a master’s degree in Puerto Rico who helped domestic violence survivors. But in Tampa, she found herself working at Publix.
The emotional toll of the disaster and the move made it difficult to build community at first. She remembers joy and guilt going hand in hand. When she was presented with a hamburger at the airport, she just stared at it.
“I was crying and crying because I could not eat a hamburger when my people didn’t have food,” Nieves said.
With time, she’s adjusted. She eventually found a job that aligns more with her expertise. She’s taking steps to get her social work certification so she can get back to that work in Florida. She found a community in local salsa dancers. She met the love of her life and got married. She’s made this her new home.
But her heart still aches for her island.
Staff writers Juan Carlos Chavez and Myriam Warren contributed to this report.