For two-and-a-half years Stephanie Rivero and her family have called Puerto Rico home, but the island they’ve come to know is different now since Hurricane Maria left her mark.
“It’s been a totally different world,” she said. “From one day to the next everything changed. It was really weird, a strange feeling… All of the trees were stripped of leaves. It’s like there were no leaves left on any trees, so everything’s so open, so bare.”
Although it looked more like a major clean-up process in the Riveros’ neighborhood in Caguas immediately following the storm, the full impact of the storm was evident when Rivero looked up to the mountains.
“It looked like there had been a fire was my first thought… Then we realized there’s no green,” she said. “Those were green yesterday and they’ve been stripped. Every leaf off the trees they were gone.”
The long-term effects of Maria on the island’s ecosystem are still unknown, she said, with bees unable to find flowers and reports of the rainforest being stripped bare.
The palm trees in their subdivision, although battered, were still standing and green, though.
“I had heard the word ‘resilient’ a lot after Harvey with the people in Houston and things like that, and that truly is what it means to be resilient: that no matter what storm hits you or whatever, you stand, you stay there; you may be battered, you may be beaten,” she said, but you stay. “That’s kind of how the Puerto Rican people are because they’ve been resilient. The people around us, you haven’t heard a lot of complaining. You’ve heard a lot of people helping one another. Whereas we used to just come and go and wave at our neighbors and say 'Hello,' we’ve met them all now. It’s too hot to be inside the houses, so people sit outside in their driveways at night in lawn chairs and everybody’s talking to everybody.”
Originally from Kilgore, Rivero and her husband, Paul, moved to Puerto Rico as missionaries with the United Pentecostal Church International after spending time in Houston, Colombia and Costa Rica.
Rivero and her children left Puerto Rico to come to Kilgore at the request of their supervisors who wanted the families to evacuate to allow the missionaries to focus their efforts on helping throughout the country.
“There are lines for everything, so it was taking so much time for him to stand in line for gas for the generators and everything just to make sure we were fine that he couldn’t travel around the island as much as they wanted them to, to pass out supplies and stuff like that. With us gone, we’re taken care of now, he can concentrate on helping others.”
Being in Kilgore comes with mixed emotions for Rivero, though.
“I almost feel guilty being in air conditioning and having running water, cell phone signal that we haven’t had for the past three weeks,” she said. “There’s that kind of guilt that I’m here and I’m fine and I’m enjoying all of my Texas comfort foods. Everybody else – a lot of friends, a lot of people we love there – they’re still there.”
Rivero’s husband’s main duties now during the relief efforts are to deliver Compassion Services International's supplies to different areas of the island.
Caguas is about 20 miles south of San Juan, Rivero said. The town has been getting supplies and has gotten closer to regaining cell phone service, but lines to get supplies and gasoline are still hours long.
After the storm hit Wednesday, Sept. 20, Rivero said, gas stations did not open until the next Saturday or Monday, and her husband waited six hours to get gas. Now, three weeks after the storm’s landfall, she said, he can get gas in about 30 minutes.
“Things like that have gotten a little bit better,” she said, noting her first time to the grocery store looked more like Black Friday than a Tuesday and most of the shelves were cleared.
Other areas on the island, though, are still having difficulty getting the needed supplies.
One of the setbacks to distributing supplies is the people needed to deliver the supplies and the road conditions. Rivero said her husband and other missionaries are going through a process to help distribute more supplies.
“They were showing the pictures that, yes, we really are distributing everything that we’re given because that’s their job, that’s why we’re there... Hopefully there will be more stories like that and more people will actually be able to pick up supplies and get them out," she said. "I think that’s a lot of the problems getting the supplies from the ports.”
Military helicopters are now starting to bring supplies to areas in the mountains that difficult to reach before the storm.
Across the island, the supply most difficult to find is also the most important: water.
“People don’t have drinking water,” Rivero said. “The stores never have water… If you find water, you buy it because it’s so hard to find.”
Water was always something Rivero says she just took for granted as always being there.
“It was there. Turn on the tap, it was there, and now every drop of water is precious,” she said. “We’re taking showers with little bottles of water… We were using rain water that we had caught, and that’s what we were bathing with, that’s what I was washing clothes with by hand.”
Cell phone service has also been slowly improving across the island after Puerto Rico went silent for a few days after the Category 5 storm.
Without cell phone service, Rivero said, they felt secluded, and after three days she drove to San Juan to find cell phone service.
“You would drive until you got to a place that had signal, and usually you could find signal pretty easily along the highway because there would be a line of cars just stopped and people standing out talking on phones or whatever, so you pull over and stop too.”
Although a tower in Caguas has service, she said, it has not reached their home; however, her husband found one spot in the house Saturday where he can get reception – as long as he doesn’t move – even though the phone does not register as having signal.
Since Maria hit the island that measures a little more than 100 miles across with winds exceeding 150 mph, Rivero said, the island has been a cash-only society from gas stations to grocery stores to the airports.
Every store that is open is just selling supplies. When Rivero’s husband tried to find a birthday present for their son who turned 12 during the aftermath of Maria, Rivero said, no stores are selling toys.
“Everything you do is for survival,” she said. “Puerto Rico is still in survival mode… Everything you do is just thinking about things that have to be done for survival. You can’t even think of rebuilding right now because you can’t even get enough water for drinking. They’re still in survival mode, and it’s difficult to live in that kind of mode for people who were used to working, planning ahead, trying to get ahead in life. Everything just went way back, and now it’s just back to basic survival. It makes it really difficult.”
Some people on the island have traveled to the mainland because they are unable to work in the current state of the island.
“There are stories like that all over the island… It’s a mass exodus at this point for those who can, for those who have families in another state or somewhere where they can go and live with family members or something and at least work somewhere for a while,” she said.
Others, though, do not have that opportunity and have to “make do” on their island, which is a territory of the United States, meaning residents are considered U.S. citizens.
Rivero’s favorite part about the island is not the scenery or the animals, but the people.
“All of them, even though they lost all of this, the whole attitude is, ‘OK, let’s get what we need and everything. Let’s figure out how we’re going to rebuild.’ There hasn’t been a defeated type of attitude. Everyone has tried to help one another… You share what you have just because they need it too.”
Rivero emphasized Hurricane Maria will not scare the Riveros back to the mainland, though.
“God knew that was going to happen three years ago when He called us to the island, why would we leave now,” she said. “Maybe God put us there for such a time as this, for this purpose. He knew what was going to happen and just maybe we were the ones He wanted to be there to help the people through it. No, this isn’t going to make us come back to the States. If anything, now they need our help more than ever, and now is actually when we’re actually taking necessary food that they have to have. There’s a great need that we have to fill now… What better opportunity is there than to help people through a disaster like this. We didn’t go just to help them when the island is beautiful and it’s the Island of Enchantment. Now that it’s the island of devastation, they need us more now than they did two years ago… I wouldn’t even be here if our supervisor hadn’t said the family need to go.”
There are many organizations helping with Puerto Rico relief, Rivero said, she knows personally the work being done by Compassion Services International and people can donate through them at www.compassionservices.org.
“The situation there really is bad, and it is improving some, just day by day there are small improvements,” she said. “Just pray that the relief gets to the people who need it the most because I think that has probably been one of the hardest things is the people who need help really aren’t getting it.”