A un año y ocho meses del evento atmosférico, el gobierno estimó en 30,000 las casas en la Isla que tienen como techo una lona.

A year and eight months ago, Héctor Quiles, 75, lost his wife to a heart condition. She –even in her fragile condition- was not only his partner but also the ideal support to look after their two children.

A week after his wife died, Hurricane María powerful winds ripped off the roof of the modest wooden house they built on top of their mother-in-law's residence in the Ingenio neighborhood in Toa Baja.

There, amid needs and leaks that threaten to damage the few belongings he has, he lives with his children, Orlando and Giovani, 48 and 38. The eldest, he said, has a diagnosis of schizophrenia and mental disability. The youngest has severe autism.

 “It´s been really hard. It´s not that there are leaks all over the house, but there are leaks in some areas, like in part of one of my sons room and in the kitchen,” Héctor said.

When El Nuevo Día visited the house, the children were in bed and the sound of a radio station came in from the back. There was hardly any space to sit in the living room and an old dining table, showing the impact of time, invaded the whole kitchen.

"I have to cook for them and cover part of their needs. The youngest eats by himself, but I have to help him get dressed and bathe. Since I don't drive, it's difficult for me to move around," lamented Quiles, whose body shows the passage of the years.

Quiles story is echoed throughout the islands: residents who lacked property titles were denied federal aid to rebuild their homes. Many are still living in conditions that - in some cases - could be classified as subhuman.

"This house belonged to my mother-in-law and there are several heirs... it's a complicated situation," he said.

"I don't have anyone. I am alone. I have to cook, go out, shop... I take them with me when I leave the area when I go to Levittown or Bayamón," explained Quiles, who uses trolley services and public transportation to move around the area.

Quiles is a veteran and, like his sons, he receives Social Security. Although the checks don't total too much, he wants to rent a house and give his sons a safe place to live. But, as he never learned to drive, he finds it hard to look for a place to move to.

"I would need someone to help me find a place to live," he added.

Last week, Gov. Ricardo Roselló announced that there were about 30,000 homes with blue tarps. The situation, he said, will not be resolved at least until August, once the first residential reconstruction efforts are completed.

This delay in housing reconstruction, he explained, is partly due to the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) allowed housing repair efforts to be funded with the first $1.5 billion  HUD's Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program.

Rosselló acknowledged that, even with this and other initiatives, the island is not prepared to face a new natural disaster. The new hurricane season begins June 1.

Still waiting

María Quiñones sleeps on two mattresses right in the middle of the living. Two fans try to ease the afternoon heat. On the other corner, a television to enjoy local productions.

This small space is almost the only place in Quiñones' house without leaks. The zinc sheets are damaged and the blue tarp has become a bunch of threads. The rooms are full of belongings, some of them useless and others protected in plastic bags.

"Oh darling, I am still like this... here I have a lot of things to throw away, but as I have no one to help me bring them down. All this gets wet here," said Quiñones, who can barely speak without fatigue.

In January 2018, Quiñones was struck by a motor vehicle and that caused her fractures in her ribs and collarbone and she had to undergo a tracheotomy. She barely leaves the house. "I have to buy salt and I have to wait until at least 6:00 (in the evening) to go down," said Quiñones who lives in a rented house on a second floor in the community of Caño Martín Peña, in Santurce.

Quiñones would like help to repair the roof, but she rents the house and since she has not been able to contact the owner of the property it is harder to get help. Right now, Quiñones is not paying the rent. "This has been horrible because if it rains I feel terrified because I have to dry and I suffocate. It's not easy, it's not easy at all...," she said.

Quiñones tarp has not been replaced since the hurricane. They only placed a few panels in the kitchen. "I would like them to help me, but who am I going to ask for help when they say that since you are not the owner, they won't help you," she stressed.

Fighting spirit

Ángela Rodríguez and Emmanuel González, both 28 years old, live in a small wooden house in the community of Villa Esperanza in Toa Alta.

They are one of the families whose houses are covered with tarps, but even though days go by, they don't lose hope. Their fighting spirit remains intact, even though it has been beaten hard.

"After María, we started all over just with a mattress on the floor and almost without clothes, without anything. The few things we have are donations. We have to deal with what we have until we reach a more stable situation,”  noted González.

A small living room and the kitchen are just at the entrance of the house, where there is also an improvised clothesline. A wooden panel separates the area from the bedroom. Everything is spotless.

"This house was so battered by the storm that you would pull from a corner and it would completely shake, and although the walls and the floor were reinforced, the floor still moves," Rodríguez added as he pointed his feet at the cracks on the floor.

The couple works and receives no financial assistance other than the government's health plan. Their idea is to repair the roof, but their income is not enough. They received assistance from FEMA to buy some of the things they lost with the storm.

"We're just like this, fighting. We both work, but the hours are not enough. We hope we will be able to save a bit at least to repair half of the roof,” said Rodríguez acknowledging that there are moments when they feel they crumble.

Although the roof has four tarps, there are leaks every time it rains. "We do what we can, little by little. Now, we are mostly working and we are not making enough money, because I don't have the 40 hours (a week). It has been difficult, but little by little," said González, a father of a six-year-old boy.

A little room

Some mattresses have become the bed of Gaspar Rodríguez, 62. His belongings lie around him, mostly work tools.

"The floor is all rotten, I have to remove it completely, but if I do that I´ll have nowhere to put all those tools," said the man who lives in the San José neighborhood in Toa Baja.

Rodríguez doesn't want to leave his small house fearing he might be robbed the few things he could rescue. He doesn't want to repair the house but plans to build a "little room" next door. "I was thinking about building a room here, in the back," said Rodríguez, who has begun to clean the area.

A few days after the hurricane hit the area, Rodríguez returned home and has since remained here. He was at a cousin´s home during the storm. "I was desperate, because I don't like bothering anyone, and I decided to come back here,” he recalled.

He commented that he dedicates himself to "chivos", referring to minor construction works. "Hard work, cutting posts, plastering, placing blocks," he said.

Although his daughter bought him some "things but fearing they might get damaged, I haven't taken them. She also requested emergency aid for him, as Rodríguez cannot read or write.

A double loss

At first glance, José Antonio Vázquez's house seems to have no major problems.

But, just a few steps into the living room or the kitchen are enough to see how the leaks are damaging his roof.

"I've bought about ten tarps since María. My sister helps me and I do what I can," said Vázquez, who lost his mom after the hurricane. As his mother didn't leave any official documents, the federal aid never arrived. "It's been very hard without my old lady, but easy. It's been too hard," he added.

Vázquez lives on 14th Street in Barrio Obrero in Santurce. The scene is repeated throughout the area - as in each of the communities in Caño Martín Peña -: houses and more houses covered with tarps.

"I've had depression and everything. My mom left me, I'm here and here, but resisting", he admitted.

Some of the houses are empty. Residents have gradually left in search of more opportunities.

In January 2018, the leadership of the eight communities in the Caño area -in partnership with other entities- announced the beginning of a project for roof reconstruction. The initiative will be completed in June with 110 roofs repaired, said María del Mar Santiago, coordinator of the G-8.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, nearly 1,000 homes along the Caño Martín Peña suffered partial or total damage.

"It's been a good uphill for us... sometimes you get depressed and especially when it rains and water starts coming down the walls and you have to dry everything," said 74-year-old Luis Arroyo.

The man, also a resident of Barrio Obrero, has the same tarp since the hurricane. "All this water comes in. We have those things covered there... we painted the wall of the living room, but over there, on the corner, there are leaks" he said as he pointed to the wall.

His family has been helping him and although he received a proposal to repair the roof, it is not possible right now, since he will have to empty the place and leave the house for a while. "I don't have the means to do that," he lamented.


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