What Maria left behind

Man among Hurricane Maria rubble
November 21, 2017

Across the heart of Puerto Rico runs the Cordillera Central, a staggering mountain range that bore the force of Hurricane Maria.

In small mountain towns like Las Marias and Maricao, many people rode out the storm with friends or relatives, and it took days to cut through fallen trees and dig through the mud to see what was left of their homes. There was no way to know what they would return home to: Some houses were missing a few roof panels; others were swallowed by eight feet of mud, strewn across the mountain, gone.

It is a tedious, twisting drive up these mountains, made longer by the bulldozers and army trucks struggling to clear the way. It has been months since Maria hit, long enough to answer the question that always follows devastation like this, which isn’t when life “will return to normal,” but instead what normal has become. Power and water will not return here for months, if not longer. In the meantime, many people are living with friends or relatives, drinking from streams, and struggling to repair the things Maria took.

But while it’s easy to be overwhelmed by what has been lost, the story of these communities is in what Maria left behind: the proud, determined people who are pulling together to rebuild their lives. Communities that are tighter. Families that are stronger. There are things in these mountains Maria could not take, and that’s why Mercy Corps is there—to help Puerto Rico’s people recover, and to build better, stronger lives.

Families gather at a Mercy Corps distribution to receive a water filtration system and cash in the city of Las Marias. Located high in the rural Puerto Rican mountains, Las Marias suffered devastating damage to its infrastructure that could take years to rebuild.
Over two days, hundreds of families received filters and $100 each they can use to buy essential things they need like food, clothes, and household supplies. Cash is a fast and flexible way to help people after crisis and supports local markets as they recover.
Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of 155 mph. It was the first Category 4 storm to make direct landfall in Puerto Rico since 1932, and has left a wide swath of damage across the island. In mountain communities like Maricao, seen here, power and water may not come back for months, or years.
Anibal looks on as his mother, Paola, receives cash and a water filter provided by Mercy Corps. After the storm, many families have resorted to drinking from rivers, streams or pipes, making them vulnerable to serious contamination and illness. “I’m planning on buying things for the kids that we lost, like clothes and shoes, as well as food and water,” Paola says. “I want my kids to go to school to do good and go as far as they can go.”
Stephanie Medina cries after Mercy Corps workers visit her for a distribution. With her home severely damaged, Medina has been staying with a friend for eight weeks with her 1-year-old son, Anthony, and her 2-year-old daughter, Kayla.
Hurricane Maria caused as much as $94 billion in damage to Puerto Rico—a devastating catastrophe on an island that was already facing economic crisis. But the storm’s lasting impact will be borne by the families it displaced and the lives it disrupted, especially in the island’s rural communities.
Mercy Corps staffers Karla Peña and Pardis Barjesteh enter a damaged house in the mountain town of Maricao. Felicita Dragones lives alone in the house but rode out the storm with her daughter. When she returned to see the house flooded and the roof gone, she burst into tears.
“I suffered a lot because I lost everything in the house, a lot of important things,” Felicita says. After two months of drinking unclean water from the outdoors, Felicita now has access to clean water, as well as money to go toward her thyroid medication. “I have hope," she says. "I hope things will get a little bit better.”
Jaime Luis Caraballo Padilla and his mother, Dolores, sit in the living room of their house after receiving cash and a water filter from Mercy Corps. Jaime says they need “everything” after the storm, but he’ll spend at least a little on his mom—one of her favorite things is to go on drives through the mountains with him. “If I leave, sometimes she gets up and walks away, so I might put her in the car and go out for a drive,” he says.
Eight weeks after the storm, a house on the side of the road in Maricao still shows extensive damage after a mudslide buried the house and sent boulders crashing through its walls. Much of Maricao was left inaccessible after the storm, and the residents spent days digging through mud and cutting trees to get back to their homes.
Lizbeth Torres Jimenez lives in Maricao with her husband, Adrian, and three sons. Two of her sons need ongoing medical care, including one who recently underwent a major operation in San Juan. Hurricane Maria destroyed one of her kids’ bedrooms and sent a tree crashing through their roof. It took the couple five days to cut through the tree to get home again.
“I knew we were going to lose our house,” Lizbeth says. “It’s a simple wooden house. … [The support from Mercy Corps] is a huge deal. We get water from the mountains and we have no idea if it’s clean or not. The money helps us a lot because right now one of our kids needs a pill that costs $1,000 each.”