Editor's note: Ryan Michalesko is a student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a Carbondale Community High School graduate. He has freelanced for The Southern as a photographer for several years. He is currently reporting on the devastation in Puerto Rico with a grant from the Pulitzer Center.
FAJARDO, Puerto Rico — One after another, Carmen De Jesús Rodríguez, a 92-year Fajardo native, began listing all of the hurricanes she has survived: San Felipe Segundo, San Ciprian, Hugo and Georges. Now she adds Maria to that list.
“This was the worst hurricane I have witnessed. It came with a different intensity,” Rodríguez said. “The sound was horrific and the rain and wind remained violent for more than 12 hours.”
Sitting high on a hillside overlooking the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico, her home of the past 70 years sustained roof damage. Several sections of tin roofing were torn off during the storm and are now covered with tarps that cast a bright blue hue into the home during the daytime. To her, that’s better than her home fared during the 1932 Category 3 Hurricane San Ciprian.
When Rodríguez was just 7, she recalls spending the first hours of San Ciprian in school. Her parents' house, which was made out of wood and palm fronds, was completely destroyed during the storm.
Admittedly a happy person, Rodríguez says she doesn’t have much to complain about. At 92 years old, she can still think straight, walk short distances, and pass the time by sewing. She attributes God for her good health and continued survival.
“I don’t have woes anymore because I leave everything in God’s hands,” she said. “I have been more than blessed. He has let me live this long.”
Short distance, big difference
In Fajardo, Rodríguez doesn’t have any problems receiving food or water — a drastic difference from many other places on the island. Just 45 minutes down the road, in Loíza, the water service is just now beginning to intermittently work, according to one of the town’s librarians, Maritere Sanjurjo.
“We’ve struggled to get basic needs such as gas, food and water because it is so overpriced,” Sanjurjo said.
In Loíza, a 24-pack of bottled water is sold for as high as $21. In Las Piedras it is $34. However, in San Juan, where much of the city is quickly recovering, the same 24-pack is just $4.
Sanjuro said they haven’t seen Federal Emergency Management Agency visit the town since Oct. 28, and she attributes many of the ongoing problems to a lack of preparedness by all levels of the government.
“The government logistics were inadequate from the start,” she said. “I volunteered in a shelter, and the housing department didn’t provide any beds or drinking water. People had to bring their own bedding, and bathe in the rain.”
We’re not leaving
Rosalda Olma, of Loíza, lived with relatives for several days after her family’s entire home and its contents were destroyed. She and the rest of her family of five now live in a small room at the school where her husband works.
Since the school doesn’t have functioning restrooms, they all have to walk home to utilize what remains of theirs — which is now covered only by a piece of scrap metal.
“It’s hard getting used to these living conditions,” she said. “All five of us are trying to fit inside a single room.”
While many people have decided to flee the island, for Rodríguez, Sanjuro and Olma, the decision to stay in Puerto Rico was easy.
“I was born here, I grew my family here, I’m not leaving here,” Olma said. “We will rebuild it all.”
— Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.