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Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo

'Before the hurricane, I would say we had a decent quality of life on the island. But now I'm like a stereotype. ... I'm more like a professional immigrant'

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

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Last month, nearly a year after Hurricane Maria barreled through the Caribbean, the Puerto Rican government raised its official death toll from 64 to 2,975, a 46-fold increase that renders Maria the deadliest natural disaster on United States soil in more than a century.

The Trump administration announced it was “proud” of the federal government’s response, but Puerto Ricans tell a different story, a story about botched aid efforts, an island plunged into darkness and residents without power or running water for months on end. Though the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent thousands of responders and contractors to Puerto Rico soon after the storm, they were ill-prepared for the task and drew criticism for treating relief efforts on the island differently than those in Florida and Texas after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. For many Puerto Ricans, the aid response highlighted their apparent status as second-class citizens.

 

In the wake of the storm, more than 400,000 Puerto Ricans fled to the mainland in search of shelter, work, and security. Around 150,000 settled in Florida. ABP spoke to three members of the recent diaspora who shared their stories. The following interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

VIDIUM

Rafael Vargas Bernard, 39

Lived in Santurce, San Juan. He ran the education program at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Now, he oversees the social media accounts and residency programming for a museum in Miami.

Before the storm, I made the mistake of preparing the museum I worked at instead of getting my own apartment ready. There were no plywood panels left. My friend and I basically shut all the metal window shutters and taped plastic bags over to stop water coming in. We put a couple sofas next to the sliding glass doors so they wouldn’t fall in.

The wind blew open the windows in my room and broke the hinges. My studio was in my apartment, so I had a lot of tools, and screwed metal screws into the metal frame so the windows wouldn’t keep flapping.

They were giving me the “Puerto Rican” offer, you know what I mean? The “I’m desperately moving to Florida” offer.

A friend of ours lived two buildings down, and we saw the wind just rip the hurricane shutters off the building and rip off the windows. His apartment was just two big open holes. They spent the rest of the hurricane in the stairwell.

To be honest, the hurricane wasn’t that bad. It was the aftermath. We weren’t ready to be without electricity and water for months.

I had a residency with Mana Contemporary Miami right after the storm and started looking for jobs there. In Puerto Rico, I ran the education program at the Contemporary Museum in San Juan, so I was looking for something similar. I applied to pretty much every single museum in Miami and Broward County.

Some treated me like any other citizen, but a couple of the places acted like I was desperate and made me ridiculously low offers, like what they’d pay someone coming out of college. I have six years experience in this. They were giving me the “Puerto Rican” offer, you know what I mean? The “I’m desperately moving to Florida” offer.

I still had my job in Puerto Rico before I moved, but the hurricane made me go broke. It was a hard decision. I could have stayed and continued to struggle, fight and help others. Or I could accept offers for a better life in Florida.

Now I’m running most of the social media and residency programming for Mana. It turns out I’m a good fit for Miami. I’ve made a lot of acquaintances who are into the same things I am. There really wasn’t a big audience for what I was doing in Puerto Rico. I was a total weirdo.

That turned out pretty good. I’m stable. My story is different than a lot of people who moved here. I’ve had a lot of luck. But I spent all my savings. I spent everything. I bet the whole house on it.

Helga Iris Otero, 38

Lived in Puerto Nuevo, San Juan. She owned and operated a boutique prior to the storm. Now, she drives for Uber and Lyft in Tampa, with aspirations to launch an online business.

I’ve experienced a few Category 3 hurricanes like Hugo and George, but you can’t prepare for a Category 4 or 5. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know where to go. In the states you can take a car and drive, but in Puerto Rico you can’t.

We stayed at my mother’s house in Trujillo Alto, San Juan with my two parents, two sons and two dogs. When the rain started we had to move as much stuff as we could to the second floor. Everything on the first floor was under water. We knew there would be a lot of water, but we didn’t expect that kind of flooding.

Everything blacked out. No food. No power. For us, the parents and adults, we can handle it. But when you have kids it’s hard to see them struggling. Markets didn’t have food. We had to stand in eight-hour lines and wait to take 20 dollars of gas for the car or the generator.

This is going to be my history and my testimony for my kids: Our mom left everything in Puerto Rico and started over.

I lost my boutique shop in San Juan, where I sold clothes and jewelry and those sorts of things, so I decided to start over from scratch. FEMA said that they were going to give us assistance to relocate to Florida. I came with my boyfriend in November, and we took a hotel that was part of the FEMA program. But the help from FEMA never came.

I used my savings to buy a car and book an apartment. My boyfriend got a job at a warehouse. I started to do Lyft and Uber to make some money. The schedule is flexible, so I can make it to medical appointments for my youngest son, who has special needs. He stayed in Puerto Rico until December so he could finish his school semester. And my oldest son just arrived a few weeks ago, because the plane tickets were too expensive for him to leave.

I want to show my sons that no matter what the situation, if you want to be successful, you have to be successful wherever you go. This is going to be my history and my testimony for my kids: Our mom left everything in Puerto Rico and started over.

Now, after 11 months, I have a few suppliers to start an online business. It’s going to take time to be the way I was in Puerto Rico, but I feel positive. I feel proud.

Reed Paul Hepperly, 43

Lived in Mayagüez. Before the storm, he worked as a farmer. Now he’s employed as a traveling salesman near Orlando and is eager to return home.

I lived out in the west coast of Puerto Rico in a town called Mayagüez. We had cement houses, gas stoves and food and water, so I’m not like some of the horror stories. We had the means, but there were people who were barely making it. If you’re poor, it’s impossible to be prepared.

My business was a different story. I had a two-acre composting yard and a 90-acre farm. All of our crops were lost—plantains, ginger and calabaza, a type of pumpkin—all that was lost. It took a week to even go into the area to document what happened. I wasn’t going to have income for more than six months, so I sold some of my equipment just to get some cash.

I tried getting a job through FEMA. I’m from the area, I know what’s happening, and have expertise. But it seemed like they already had people identified from outside Puerto Rico to do the work. It felt like they said to us, “You guys are too corrupt to do this job.” I saw a lot of humanity after the storm, but I also saw a lot of corruption and incompetence too. I saw both extremes.

If you’re poor, it’s impossible to be prepared.

Our financials were going bad, so I started floating resumes. The only job offers I got were outside of Puerto Rico. I’ve been in Florida for about two weeks for a corporate job selling parts for heavy machinery.

My wife works full time as a professor and my four-year-old girl just started school. For the next year, every time I see a long weekend, I’ll see if I can hop on a plane and show up [in Puerto Rico].

Before the hurricane, I was one of the guys who would say we had a decent quality of life on the island. But now I’m like a stereotype. I was forced to go to Florida, like so many other Puerto Ricans. I’m more like a professional immigrant.

I’m optimistic. The family issues are the most pressing ones, but it’s not like I can’t talk to them. And I’m not the first guy who’s either gone to war, or a job, or seen an opportunity to go on a rig in the middle of the ocean. This is a lot better than being on a crab boat. All things said, I can’t complain.