*This is an account of one individuals experience during Hurricane Maria. although the storm occurred throughout the entire island and affected everyone, every survivor’s experience is different.
How is a tragedy measured? Is it by statistics? Is it by demographics? The degree of how much the economy was affected by the event? Would I need to read aloud the death toll of an affected area after a natural disaster in order for a storm to be of significance? Or is it by the people, and the stories that they’ve now lived to tell after surviving the tragedy?
Ineavelle Ruiz is the current supervisor at the Hispanic Center with family members that survived Hurricane Maria and also had a hand in assisting survivors that fled from the island. I had the opportunity to sit with her and discuss her experience during Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.
Francheska: “When you heard about what was happening in Puerto Rico what were your first thoughts?”
Ineavelle: I can’t even speak about it without crying still. No communication. I had no idea…My parents are there, my husband’s parents are there. I can’t even express the amount of desperation that I felt, or that my family felt…
Just hearing of the disaster that had gone through the island… Those two days where we didn’t know anything, had to be the two worst days filled with anxiety because we just didn’t know what to do.”
Francheska: “What kind of things were you hearing from what was happening on the island?”
Ineavelle: “The rain, the wind, seeing all of the disaster, the water, the flooding. Seeing it and then the aftermath of being or feeling abandoned because the help didn’t come soon enough with no real way to get into or out of Puerto Rico. Not to mention the numbers that were never really finalized; to this day you don’t even really know how many people died. That unknown…there’s no clarity behind that.”
Francheska: “How did you manage to finally get into contact with your family?”
Ineavelle: “Well, my brother-in-law drove all the way to his place of work and stood in line to wait for one of those military grade cell phones…
They had them available there for people to be able to reach their family members and let them know they were okay. He was allowed like one minute on the phone to communicate. It was just enough time to say, we’re alive and we’re okay…Then they would have to say goodbye.”
Francheska: “Do you believe the U.S. government did everything that they could in order to assist the victims of Hurricane Maria?
Ineavelle: “I think that some of the government officials, especially our president, turned a blind eye to the pain and the devastation that our citizens went through…”
Francheska: “How do you believe the situation could have been handled better?
Ineavelle: “In their position of power, the first thing that I would’ve looked at is how to set in place some kind of transitional shelter here for these families. THERE WAS NOTHING. Nothing here was done, no transitional shelter from the Red Cross, no transitional shelter from any other agency…
Francheska: “Are you hopeful that the new Disaster Aid Relief Bill is going to be used in a way that will positively impact the island?
Ineavelle: “I am hopeful. I think that there are three key things that money can help with. One of them is employment. So that people who are having such a hard time making it here or who really miss the island can return and have employment in Puerto Rico. Number two is housing. They need to help rebuild their homes, and their electric system…Number three is the medical care in Puerto Rico. I think it’s really important that doctors return to the island…There are no doctors, no specialists left on the island because they all left and came here; there were no jobs after the hurricane.”
Francheska: “Overall, how has Hurricane Maria impacted you?”
Ineavelle: “I think it’s opened my eyes a lot about natural disasters…it’s helped me realize how scarce our resources really are. But it has also taught me a valuable lesson about how people come together…I can’t tell you the negative without giving you all the positive that I saw in the community. There were so many people, agencies, and companies that helped support this effort who wanted to give and donate; United Way of Berks County gave us major support.
The thing was even if we couldn’t give them money, at least we could say we’re here for you, we hear you, I am here, and you are not alone…
There was an influx of so many families and each one had their story. But ultimately it was the story of un pueblo (the villages) that had gone through something so devastating and so disastrous and STILL managed to be resilient.”
Francheska: “What do you want people to take away from this report and from the stories of Hurricane Maria survivors?”
Ineavelle: “You can’t rebuild your entire life in a month: that’s impossible. That’s not realistic at all. I think it’s really important for people to understand how difficult and devastating it is to lose everything in a split second. I heard someone recently say we’re only a paycheck away from homelessness, a lot of us are, and we need to rethink the human condition and how important it is for us to understand that and to care…”
Francheska: “If people are inspired by what they have read today, how can they help?”
Ineavelle: “By supporting the Berks Coalition to End Homelessness, and supporting the other agencies in the community…Making the newly acquired residents from Puerto Rico feel like they are valuable will only enhance the community and enhance their quality of life.”
The final installment of the La Isla de Esperanza article series is another interview that took place at the Hispanic Center in Reading. It is a tale of a woman warrior who overcame adversity in order to survive and help others discover how to do the same. Stay tuned for La Isla de Esperanza Part 3 with Johanna Carrera.