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Heaven but not home: Puerto Ricans start new lives in North Carolina
Families forced off island by Hurricane Maria
Published Tuesday, December 12, 2017 6:00 am
by Kiana Cole, Media Hub

Emerito Collazo points to the water system he’s built on his roof in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. He’s been without water and power since Hurricane Irma made landfall in early September.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The silence was louder than any cheers or applause.

If it were a flight on any other day before the storm, landing would be cause for celebration. There would be applause. There would be anxious foot tapping and heads poking into the aisle, passengers ready to be back on their island.

But today, four days after Hurricane Maria, everyone is still. The formerly vibrant trees look skeletal and scorched, as if fire, not rain, ravaged the island. The streets are speckled with squares of blue: tarps where there used to be roofs.

By some miracle, and despite the chaos of cancelled flights and cut-off communication, Angel Lopez-Collazo and his dad made it to San Juan from North Carolina.

Angel’s family moved to the States when he was 10, but dozens of uncles and aunts and cousins – and friends who’ve practically been stitched into the family tree – still live on the island. They’re the reason he’s back. He came to get his 94-year-old grandmother, Virgen-Mina Collazo. There’s no power or water on the island, and the generator powering her oxygen tank is rapidly running out of fuel.

On an island so badly bruised by hurricane seasons in the past, no one foresaw that Maria would not just bruise, but assault everything in its path. It destroyed physical necessities: shelter, access to food and water. It also obliterated the intangible: futures, jobs, education.

It fractured families like Angel’s, prompting more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans to flee in its aftermath.

But Angel wasn’t thinking about how his grandparents and cousins could, and would, be some of the people wrenched from their homes. The future wasn’t on Angel’s mind at all. Just the present. Once his grandma’s oxygen tank gave out, so would she.

And he had to get to her.


39 days after the storm
Angel and his dad commandeered collapsed roads. They overcame power outages and scarce gasoline. They charged up the mountains of Orocovis, a town in the center of the island, to find Virgen-Mina. Their family called them “the cavalry,” Angel remembers. And they made it.

They took Virgen-Mina from a community center in Orocovis, where some of the town’s elderly had been living. She survived the flight to North Carolina. Angel’s other grandparents went with them to North Carolina, too. Cousins followed. Friends followed cousins. Angel’s parents were used to living alone.

Now, they have eight extra people in their Chapel Hill home.

Across the island, conditions remain challenging. When power is restored, it collapses again. On Nov. 15, moments after the island met its goal of 50 percent power generation, an outage swept through San Juan – it was back to 22 percent. On Nov. 28, the Federal Emergency Management Agency cancelled a $30 million contract with a Florida firm when emergency supplies were never delivered. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans are still roofless.

Fifty-five people died because of Hurricane Maria, officially. But the number doesn’t account for indirect deaths in the storm’s aftermath. It neglects the elderly, like Virgen-Mina, whose lives were jeopardized because the island-wide power outage made it nearly impossible to survive. And although she made it out alive, the death toll doesn’t account for the three others at her facility who died.

Now, a little over a month after the storm made landfall, Angel and his dad are back in Chapel Hill with the eight other friends and family members who evacuated the island. Dinner-time talk is about Puerto


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