Houses destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Photo: Shutterstock.
By Daniel Morales, investigative journalist
Leaving behind one’s homeland and family is not easy when you are young, but doing so after turning 50 and arriving in an unfamiliar place, with a language you do not master, and a five-year-old grandson with special needs can be a challenge that many would avoid. That was not the case for María Báez.
A resident of Puerto Rico since birth, Báez found herself in September 2017 with three adult children and a recently completed nursing career. She believed she had a life built and a strong desire to stay in her beloved San Juan for the rest of her days. She never suspected that change would come with someone who shared her name hundreds of miles across the Atlantic.
The first weeks of September brought the warnings that residents of Puerto Rico like Báez were accustomed to. The path of a tropical cyclone threatened to include the Island of Enchantment. Although the hurricane season in the Atlantic extends from June 1 to November 30, those who live in vulnerable areas know that September is when the most intense storms usually occur.
So, Maria Báez prepared as always. She made a plan to weather the hurricane that bore her name with her son and grandson, all together in the apartment she occupied on the first floor of Luis Llorens Torres housing in San Juan. She had a gas stove, food and water, a portable radio, and candles. She thought she had enough.
“Maria was different because it destroyed us. We didn’t expect it to have so much fury,” Báez recalls. In fact, Hurricane Maria would become the most devastating natural disaster in the history of the northeastern Caribbean.
Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico. Photo: Shutterstock.
In large part, the intensity of Maria and other recent hurricanes has been the result of climate change. The link is not obvious, but it is definitive, according to the scientific community.
Hurricanes or tropical cyclones are storms with rapidly rotating winds around a center of hot and low-pressure air. They depend on four ingredients: heat on the ocean’s surface, large amounts of moisture in the air, favorable winds, and rotation. Climate change directly influences the first three ingredients, according to scientists.
So, global warming does not necessarily mean more tropical cyclones every year, but these storms will have better ingredients to intensify. This is explained by Paris Rivera, Doctor in Climate Change:
“Studies have detected that there is not so much a greater frequency of these phenomena, but rather there has been greater intensity… There may be the same number, they may have the same frequency, but with greater intensity, which has an impact on greater damage and greater impacts on the population and systems,” says Rivera.
María Báez remembers the night before María’s arrival on land. “The winds started around 10 at night or so. And strong, strong, it started like after midnight when the water began to enter the apartment… It was a very long night… The wind roared, roared with anger. She was angry. María was angry, and that’s why the hurricane was so destructive, because the winds were horrible,” recalls Báez.
In the early morning of September 20, María’s eye made landfall in Yabucoa, southeast of the island, with an intensity of Category 4. Sustained winds of 135 knots were recorded, bordering on the maximum intensity on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
Palm trees sway as they feel the 150 mph winds of Hurricane María. Photo: Shutterstock.
Although the hurricane weakened a bit before reaching Puerto Rico, the circulation had expanded. The damage was catastrophic. In addition to the damage and destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes, María left the power grid in ruins, causing the second-longest blackout in the world, lasting almost a year.
It also knocked down numerous cell phone towers. Material losses reached nearly $90 billion. According to the Puerto Rican government’s estimates, at least 2,975 people died, many due to the hurricane’s indirect impact.
“It destroyed many things. It destroyed many families. Many people died due to lack of access. María finished destroying everything in its path,” recalls Báez.
After a night of terror, Báez was able to see that destruction just by opening the door of her apartment. Throughout the residential area, the water reached knee-deep. The old trees that characterized the housing complex had disappeared, and the apartments on the third and fourth floors were left without windows, roofs, or with holes in the walls.
It took days for Báez to reunite with her three children and seven grandchildren. They had lost almost all their belongings, but everyone was in good condition.
For weeks, the immense need caused essential products to become scarce both in stores and at government distribution points and charitable organizations. Soon, rationing began.
“The lines were endless… You had to form a strong ice line. Two bags of ice per person. I would go at 4 in the morning to wait in line… [At supermarkets], ten people would enter and buy restricted food. And after those ten people, another ten would enter,” Báez explains.
In one of those seemingly endless lines, Báez learned that FEMA and the state of Florida were offering assistance to those who wanted to relocate. She thought of her grandson and how it would be months before he could receive the personalized care, therapy, and nutrition he needed due to the brain damage he suffered days after birth.
She decided to seek help, and thus, along with her grandson, became part of the diaspora of more than approximately 200,000 Puerto Ricans who left the island after María’s passage.
San Juan, Puerto Rico, USA, October 10, 2017: Relief personnel and supplies being delivered at Isla Grande Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after Hurricanes Irma and María. Photo: Shutterstock.
“I got on that plane crying because I was leaving [my three children and six grandchildren]… And I had the confidence that… they would survive,” recalls Báez, moved.
By leaving her home and community due to a natural disaster linked to global warming, María Báez and her grandson became climate migrants.
Within their difficulties, María Báez and her grandson can consider themselves privileged since, unlike most migrants, their residence in a free associated state like Puerto Rico allowed them to start a new life in the southern United States without significant inconvenience.
They arrived in Orlando, Florida, on the morning of November 3, 2017. At the airport, FEMA representatives and volunteers were waiting for them, helping them choose the hotel room that would become their temporary home.“I didn’t even know where I was, but I had the confidence that I was coming to give the child a better quality of life,” Báez recounts.
They began to receive help gradually. Báez focused on finding the school and medical treatment her grandson needed. With a lot of effort and almost six years of care, her grandson has been able to walk on his own at the age of eleven, attend a public elementary school, and receive physical, speech, and occupational therapy.
“Thank God, I met an excellent social worker. She started guiding me, helping me adapt to survive here in Florida,” she says.
Now María Báez has a life she never dreamed of; she works as a nursing assistant and lives in an apartment near Orlando. She left behind the uncertainty of blackouts and shortages of food and other essential products.
But she also left behind her family, her community, and her land. The sadness of not being close to loved ones is alleviated somewhat by knowing that her children have been able to make progress little by little. Although rebuilding their lives took years, they are now in a good situation.
However, many Puerto Ricans did not have the same luck. Almost six years after the hurricane, the reconstruction tasks are not yet complete. It is difficult to estimate which damages are linked to the eight hurricanes or tropical storms that have impacted the island since María.
What is known is that at present, the electrical grid remains vulnerable, and even federal authorities do not fully trust that it will withstand the next hurricane season.
Widespread blackouts and the noise of electric generators have become the new reality, and although there are no official figures on the number of homes that have not yet been repaired, several legislators on the island claim that there may be up to 3,000 homes with blue tarps instead of a permanent roof.
María Báez, a smile of courage and hope, left her homeland and family behind to give her grandson a better quality of life after facing the devastating Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. Her story is an example of strength and unwavering love. Photo: Henry Mendoza.
And many Puerto Ricans, tired of waiting for government aid that never arrived, have chosen to rebuild or repair their homes on their own.
Undoubtedly, not all stories of climate refugees always have a happy ending. Many times, they do not find the government and community support they need to start a new life. María Báez is counted among the fortunate ones, and despite the vicissitudes, she feels grateful.
“It was worth it. It was worth getting on that plane not knowing where I was going, without having family here; only with the confidence that the Lord would open doors to give [my grandson] that quality of life. And if I had to do it a thousand times for him, I would do it again,” she says.
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