“We Survived”: A Year After Hurricane Maria, 25 Puerto Rican Women Tell Their Story
Anyone who lives in Puerto Rico can tell you that life is divided in two chapters — before and after Maria.
One year ago, Puerto Rico faced its most catastrophic storm in recent history. Hurricane Maria came barreling through on the early hours of September 20, knocking out the power and all communications methods almost instantly across the US territory. And the massive storm, with its unforgivable rain and winds, was just the beginning.
We all know the aftermath of the Category 4 hurricane was worse than anyone could have predicted: Puerto Ricans spent months without water or electricity, facing food shortages, grappling with the lack of medical resources, struggling financially, and dealing with a mental health crisis that led to a 29% increase in the number of cases of people dying by suicide. Thousands more were forced to leave the island in search of a better life, in the face of the local and federal government’s negligence. A year later, many still have blue tarps as a substitute roof for their home. The government updated its death toll to reflect at least 2,975 people died as a result of the storm, though the number could be much higher.
Anyone who lives in Puerto Rico can tell you that life is divided in two chapters — before and after Maria. This summer, more than 50 women reached out to Refinery29 with their experiences surviving the storm. Among them is a young pregnant woman who drank water from fallen coconuts to survive, a mother of two who escaped through a window after the ocean flooded her house, and a woman who lost four family members after the storm.
Ahead, we are running a selection of the writings we received. These are the stories of Maria.
Editor’s note: Some of these interviews have been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.
Angelicque Bautista, 25-year-old administrative coordinator, Canóvanas, 40 days without power
“We hadn't seen how complacent; how ill-prepared to survive without the empathy of those around us we'd become. We spent the days huddled around a battery-operated radio tuned to WAPA Radio 680 to get the news. Our evenings were spent gathering updates from returning acquaintances: seven bridges collapsed in the countryside, curved streets sloughed by mudslides, and thieves venturing into nearby houses.
The stories of displaced refugees in places like San Isidro, Campo Rico, and Cubuy left me jittery. We were lucky. Our cisterns had fallen off the roof, security windows leaked with water, and a power line had to be borrowed from a neighbour, but we were so lucky.”
Eimy Figueroa, 30-year-old visual merchandiser and photographer, San Juan, 38 days without power
“I spent the hurricane in a rehabilitation centre with my mom. About five days before the storm, she had a hip replacement due to a health condition. We felt the hurricane get stronger when we heard the zinc ceiling of the second floor of the rehabilitation centre fall next to our window. We were moved to a different room once we noticed that water was coming through the ceiling, completely flooding it. She could not receive her therapy right away due to not being able to communicate with her healthcare provider. When we finally were able to go, we had to be there two hours early in order to use the elevator and at times if we were back after noon, wait downstairs for more than four hours until the elevators were turned on again. This was our routine for three times a week.
On the days when there was no therapy, I would team up with my stepfather and we would go out and decide which line we would make that day. One day he did the eight-hours-long ice plant line, while I was a grocery store for three hours waiting to go in to ensure we got water and some food for a couple days. This very quickly became our new normal. Thankfully, the company I work for offered each of us the opportunity of a transfer to New York. I’ve been working since I was 16 years old and the thought of being left without means to provide for myself or my family was so strong I accepted the transfer with eyes closed.”
Maribel Vecchini-Bird, 66-year-old retired college professor, Luquillo, three weeks without power
“I’m from the town Guayanilla, but currently live in Wisconsin. I went to Puerto Rico to help one of my sisters after her farm in the town of Luquillo was damaged during Hurricane Irma. We didn’t think that Maria, then a tropical wave, would become the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico. We spent the night without sleeping because of the strong winds, the hits to the windows, the water coming in without mercy every time a window broke, the doors shaking. The terror lasted from midnight on Tuesday throughout all day Wednesday. When we came out of the house, we couldn’t believe our eyes: The mountains were naked without trees. The radio was our only way to get information. The news and listener calls were devastating.
Our flights to Wisconsin were canceled three times. In the meantime, we were without power, showering with cold water, waiting in endless lines to get gas, food and, water. We were unable to speak with our children in Wisconsin for an entire week. We’ve returned to Puerto Rico every couple of months since then. We’re committed to the rebuilding of our island.”
Jarelys Aguilar, 20-year-old retail employee, Ponce, four months without power
“When Hurricane Maria came I was six months pregnant. We spent the day in my mother-in-law’s house, where the windows were completely covered. We couldn’t see outside, just listen to the noise. When we came out the next day it was like waking up in another place. We couldn’t really leave since trees and lighting posts had fallen down and were blocking the road. My husband walked from the barrio Magueyes to Clausells to see if the rest of our family was okay. He was walking for hours!
The worst part was when there was a shortage of water. I had the idea of going up the mountain where the palm trees had fallen down and look for coconuts. Can you imagine drinking coconut water straight out of them in order to survive? On top of that, the canned food was obviously not healthy. We traveled to New York in January, where I was able to have my son on the 9th. We returned to Puerto Rico on the 14th, even though I had just given birth. The warmth of our island was calling me. That night the power came back.”
Yolanda Mendez Muñoz, 58-year-old teacher, Aguada, two months without power
“I spent the hurricane in a walk in closet with my two dogs. It was a terrifying experience. At 4 a.m. it felt like the wind would tear away the doors. On the 26th, I went to the school to help clean the debris. Our students came back on November 6, even though there was no power. I cried a lot and lost all hope that things would go back to normal. I spent two weeks without being able to communicate with my children. I would need to write an entire book in order to tell my whole experience: washing clothes by hand, looking for water, my family stateside not knowing if we were okay. Total desolation. But I survived. That’s what matters.”
Andrea Martínez, 31-year-old artist and professor, Bayamón, five and half months without power
“Our neighbours lost their home. One of them lived with us for six months. It was impossible to find potable water and the river’s was dangerous because of the contamination. Sometimes we would be in line six or seven hours to get inside the grocery store, just to find out there was no food left. There was scarcity everywhere, but still people supported each other. After our family’s situation somewhat stabilised after two weeks, we started going to neighbourhoods and towns where there was need. Sometimes we crossed rivers on foot just to get to those families. Everywhere we went they told us the government had not shown up.”
“During the hurricane, it was very concerning because I have two daughters and one of them needs medical care for a kidney condition. In terms of my professional life, I was also worried because I’m a business owner and this is my sole source of income. I kept wondering how to keep our ice cream frozen without power.
After the storm, I lost more than $1,000 in inventory, part of my house was flooded, and I saw how loved ones had to leave the island, how local businesses were closing. It was filled with moments of frustration and anguish. We were offered the opportunity of leave the island and stay with a loved one, but we decided to remain home and keep working to help the island through our platform.”
Irene S. Castillo, 15-year-old student, San Juan, four months without power
“The hurricane made me realise it was my time to step up as class president and as a citizen. The government wouldn’t give us the permit to open my school, even though there were barely any damages. There was so much miscommunication between the authorities and the schools, and we, the students, needed something to distract us from the destruction and the loss we had gone through. We wanted something to help us normalise the situation. Education was our coping method.
I researched and went to meetings trying to find out what was happening and what the school administration was going to do about it. I sent out messages to my classmates, planning a protest in front of the school. On the date, hundreds of students came, bearing signs and raising their voices. By the end of the day our school was reopened, and we would go back to our routine two days later. The hurricane may have affected us and destroyed our peace, but it also made me grow as a person and learn about raising my voice and fighting for what I love.”
Samara L. Nieves Báez, 19-year-old student, Dorado, five months without power
“My family lives in a wood house. Before the hurricane, we went to the house of other family members so we could be safe. Around 4 a.m. a giant tree fell on top of our house, destroying the roof. That’s how the water got in. We lost a lot of things. Our house is not even the memory of what it was before. We were able to return home in November, even though we didn’t have a roof yet.
We’re still facing some challenges caused by the hurricane, all of them related to the damage in our home. And that’s without mentioning the emotional scars.”
Maribel Rivera, 55-year-old family business owner, Manatí, 37 days without power
“After the hurricane, I had to take care of my father, who has senile dementia. We didn’t have access to essential services, generators, or water tank. The geriatric centre that he attends was closed for months. During the day we would go together to the funeral home our family owns to spend time. There we saw the death toll crisis up close. There was an increase in deaths, but there were barely any funeral homes functioning in the region of Arecibo and Manatí after the storm. It was a severe crisis.”
Celey Rodríguez Miranda, 28-year-old salesperson, San Juan, three months without power
“I’ll never forget the sound made by the strong winds. It was like hearing wolves. We were on a 22nd floor and still rainwater got in, flooding the apartment. We were able to stop it from coming inside and redirect the flow to the stairs. The building felt like it was shifting from side to side throughout. Afterwards, we had to make long lines for everything: food, water, ice, gas, and diesel. In the building, the elevators only worked from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in an effort to conserve diesel. Many times I walked up and down the 22 flights of stairs, sometimes with bags of ice and provisions.
A week after the hurricane, I found out I was pregnant. I left for Miami where my sister lives, to obtain the prenatal care I needed and wasn’t available in the island. What me and millions of Puerto Ricans live through — I don’t wish that on my worst enemy. Despite all the horror, it was a gift to see how communities came together.”
Ilianis Tirado, 22-year-old data clerk, Vega Baja, three months and a half without power
“The day after the hurricane tried to drive to the highway, to see if we could get some sort of phone service. What I saw was so devastating, I started to sob. When you live in a place all your life, it’s part of who you are. At that moment, I didn’t see any hope. I only saw destruction in a place that was already economically devastated. Some of my loved ones lost their houses and even today I can’t find the right words to comfort someone who lost everything. We spent a lot of our days helping others. In several occasions I cooked with the World Central Kitchens and Chefs for Puerto Rico, which helped distribute food to evacuees in shelters.
After a month I returned to college, to what would be the last semester of undergrad. We would take classes in tents outside. I don’t know how, but I was able to finish the semester and graduate without even having power. We spent Thanksgiving Day in darkness, the Christmas season was bitter. Still, I can say I’m grateful for the resilience and brave spirit of my fellow Puerto Ricans. I can’t say the same about the local government or the president.”
Gloria M. Colom Braña, 37-year-old architect and PhD candidate, Arecibo, 15 days without power
“I was staying with my parent-in-laws while I conducted dissertation-related fieldwork when Hurricane Maria struck. The three of us spent that long dark day shuttered in a midcentury concrete building, listening to the radio as each station went off air and hoping that the roaring winds wouldn’t blow out the windows. The true ordeal began after the winds subsided. Arecibo lacked a stable source of clean water in the urban area in the first few weeks so verbal communication between neighbours became crucial for survival.
In the most extreme occasion we ended up searching for water in the men's bathroom in the city's ruined basketball stadium, mired in foul-smelling mud and darkness in order to fill our water canisters. Helping out other people in line fill their tanks and receiving help from community members made the experience bearable. It took a week before I was able to contact both my mother in Aguadilla and my husband who had stayed in Indiana. It took months before I stopped seeing the looping image of buildings flying away wherever I went and crying over small things such as a cup of ice water.”
Xiomara Luccas, 33-year-old professor, Guayanilla, 75 days without power
“Before the hurricane, we secured everything in our house. Our two children stayed with our family members, while me and my husband relocated to the radio station Radio Antillas in our town where he is the technical director. It was required of him to spend the emergency there. During the storm and afterwards, we stayed on-air. Even when the station began flooding and we were trying to save the equipment. The two most impactful moments were these: First, going out to report right after the river had overflown its banks and hit the town. Second, helping a desperate father who was searching for ice because his son’s medicine needed to be refrigerated. We went on air and told our listeners about the situation. Within five minutes, the parking lot was full of people bringing ice for the father. We spent 75 days practically living inside the radio station. We didn’t really need anything there, so we helped everyone who we could.”
Alejandra Ruiz, 21-year-old student, Ponce and San Juan, around three months without power
“When we opened the doors for the first time to go outside, my grandmother had a panic attack. Everything was destroyed. Her neighbour’s wood house was on the ground. We all went out to clean the debris and mobilise. There was no way to communicate with the rest of our family to know if they were okay; there was no power, no gas, no water. The hardest part was trying to eat everything in the fridge before it went bad. Then, we had to rely on canned food. We spent gas making long lines to get the bare necessities. There was a curfew, so we couldn’t really go anywhere. We’re still recovering.”
Dellymar B. Bernal Martínez, 36-year-old animal shelter director, Cabo Rojo, eight months without power
“I spent Hurricane Maria surrounded by nearly 300 pets who at the time were at the sanctuary shelter Santuario de Animales San Francisco de Asís. Because the sanctuary is near a river, we moved to the second floor of the main building. Even though we took precautionary measures, we never thought the hurricane would strike with such force. I was frustrated during the storm because there was no way to communicate with anyone. I always thought that when water starts flooding places it would make some sort of noise, but it wasn’t like that. I was on the first floor looking for newspapers to cover the floor near the animals upstairs when the river’s water started getting out of the banks. At that point, I was scared for everyone’s life. It was nearly 5 p.m. and it kept getting darker, to the point we couldn’t see how high the flooding was. It was terrifying. Fortunately, the flooding stopped before the second floor.
When I finally came out the next day, I thought we had lost the sanctuary shelter. We lost thousands of pounds of food, materials, fences, the office, the playgrounds. I was without being able to communicate with the outside for seven days because there was no access to the Santuario. We were able to start from zero, thanks to the support of the community, volunteers, and international organisations.”
Keishmary Santa Hornedo, 21-year-old student, Barceloneta, one month without power
“Two days before Maria came I was at the doctor's office with my mom terrified that my Lupus was getting worse. Nothing could have ever prepared me for what came after Maria was done with us. When I first opened the door all I saw was destruction and I knew nothing would be the same. The radio was filled with worried doctors urging the public to be careful and safe. That filled my mom with worry and I tried my best to reassure her that I would be fine even if saying it felt like a lie. I spent the upcoming weeks worrying about where to get food, water, batteries, and medicine for our family. I felt defeated every time I couldn’t do more to protect the ones I loved most.
I realised that in order for me to not get sicker I had to leave my island, my home. I never wanted this, I had a plan to finish my degree, that was my dream. I didn’t want to leave but in order to survive I had to leave my family, friends, and home behind. My brother and sister-in-law opened their house in Ohio to us and I will forever be grateful for the months I spent with them. I’m back in Puerto Rico now. A lot of people called me crazy for coming back, but they just don’t understand how there’s nothing like home. I’m now happily in remission for the first time since I was diagnosed 10 years ago, by the grace of God.”
Athena N. Español de la Cruz, 28-year-old currently unemployed, Añasco, two months without power
“I was living in Mayagüez and in grad school at the time of Hurricane Maria. When it became clear that the storm would hit us, I went home to the town of Añasco. My mother, brother, and me spent nearly 24 hours together and feeling the wind hit the house. We were lucky that our house wasn’t damaged. We only saw some water come in through the back when our backyard flooded. We were without water for about three weeks and we got power back in mid-November. The financial and social catastrophe forced me to leave school and move out of the island. I’ve been part of the diaspora since June.”
Diana Ríos Santos, 28-year-old doula, Manatí, three months and a half without power
“Every day it was the same: looking for water and food. I sometimes thought, ‘What if the store runs out of food?’ I tried to be optimistic anyway and even when we were in need, I was grateful my daughters were okay. We slowly got used to living in prehistoric conditions, but we did it with love and laughter. It wasn’t until we started considering leaving the island that I struggled. Our only fixed income source was my husband’s job, but there were problems there after the hurricane. So he left first to Tampa, FL on December 1, while I waited at home. I cried every day.
We spent the Christmas season without power, preparing to move, and in funeral homes. I lost four family members, all of them in the hospital: Tío Gilberto on December 8, Tío Pedro on Christmas’ Eve, Abuela Liona on January 15, and Tío Danny on January 20. It was so painful and confusing, but I had to put a smile on my face because I couldn’t fail my daughters. I moved stateside on January 27. As soon as I reunited with my husband, I could cry and mourn the hurricane and its aftermath. I’m in the diaspora now and even though it sounds terrible, I wish I was with my people — even if that meant not having water or power.”
Daniela Victoria Arroyo González, 19-year-old student, Moca, five months without power
“As a transgender woman, after the hurricane I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to have access to my hormones, which I have been using for several years and are very important for my health. I was lucky that they were available in certain pharmacies and my mother was able to help me get them. We didn’t have potable water, so we would collect rainwater to clean the house and to shower. The water would make our skin itch. The lack of power, particularly at night, made me feel alone and vulnerable. As the days passed, it felt like we were stuck. I was privileged, however. We had a roof, food, and a little water. We were alive and together.”
Daritcia Rivera, 36-year-old freelance writer, San Juan, four months without power
“My experience dealing with both hurricanes as a single mother of two daughters was quite daunting. I was very lucky, my house is a very well built structure, but we did not get electrical power until late January. So I moved out for December and January; having no electrical power for so long in an urban setting and with small children is quite depressing and hindering. Since I am my own boss and I also make and sell ice cream, financially speaking, this experience left us struggling, which was already happening before the hurricanes hit us.
Luckily, a friend of mine has been staying with us ever since, and he took it upon himself to make the six-hours lines at gas stations and to take care of any complicated situations that could be to difficult for me to take care of. Almost a year later, I can say that we are still suffering the effects of Maria as if it just hit us. The deaths, the PTSD, those first days of not recognising what was left of my beautiful island and not even knowing if we could get food… We are still struggling.”
Teresa Córdova Rodríguez, 28-year-old translator, San Juan, three weeks without power
“I was bleeding nonstop for a month after the hurricane. I would lie down in excruciating pain. No one knew what was wrong. Doctors eventually told me I was having hormonal flare-ups because of my poor diet. There were no vegetables, no fruits. In the first few days, you could barely find canned food and bottled water. It wasn’t until December that they were able to operate on me, after the first try went amiss because the blackouts led to damages on the medical equipment. I was privileged to have access to a private hospital with a generator.
It wasn’t until May that they confirmed an endometriosis diagnosis. This is a place where medical services were precarious. Now, it’s even worse. The storm has not ended yet. We lost 2,975, many of whom we don’t know their names. The anger we feel because of their deaths is what is leading us to fight for an island that has more solidarity with the lives of its citizens than the rich and powerful.”
Elisela Rivera Montañez, 38-year-old medical technician, Humacao, seven months without power
“We spent Hurricane Maria at home. The last thing we thought was that the ocean would get inside our house, which is located far enough from the coast. During the early hours of the morning, the water started coming inside nonstop. I had to wake up my three children and figure out how we would escape. We broke a window in the back of the house so we could get out and we ran towards the second story of our neighbour’s house, which was empty. This was all happening as the hurricane raged on. When the storm passed and we came home, we saw we had lost everything, including our cars.”
Alexandra Ramos, 45-year-old clinical psychologist, Dorado, 85 days without power
“During the storm our home was hit by a flash flood. Scared of drowning, my husband and I made the decision to ride out the storm on the roof of our home. We spent five hours under a two feet ledge and covered in picnic blankets with our 15-year-old daughter Sophia, 11-year-old son Diego, dog, and bunny. Because we were so cold and wet, the idea of spending the night on the roof was not an option. We grabbed the ladder and waded in waist-deep water, climbing our neighbours walls until we reached my sister's house that was on higher ground.
When we returned to our home, there were bananas, coconuts, dead fish, frogs, and even a car tire in our home. There were fish and turtles in the pool. We lost 90% of our furniture. Our home was uninhabitable for about a month but we were incredibly grateful that our family was unharmed. Our family and community provided lots of help and support. Being without power for so long, the difficulties finding food and gas, the uncertainty of when we would return to some sort of stability, and the devastation around us was heartbreaking. But, that's the thing, Puerto Ricans are incredibly resilient and that is what we witnessed. The storm brought out the best in people. The multitude of acts of kindness got us through the long days."
Ivy Méndez, 52-year-old teacher, Las Piedras, two months without power
“Hurricane Maria broke our island and our spirit. The day after it struck, it was a nightmare. I had to go to the hospital with my parents because my father fell in the bathroom as he was taking out the water flooding it and my mother had cellulitis on her leg. The hospital was filled with people. We saw people whose fingers got amputated because they had accidents during the storm, among many other things. In the days after, we dealt with eternal lines looking for gas and provisions.
The most painful moment was when my two daughters and their husbands decided to leave Puerto Rico because of the storm’s aftermath. They’re okay now, thank God. The island’s recuperation has been really hard. There’s no day we don’t mention Maria. But we’re still standing.”