Amid Hurricane María Disaster in Puerto Rico, Strong Community Leaders Emerge

Refugees International’s Alice Thomas was in Puerto Rico last week to assess progress on the island’s recovery almost one year after Hurricane María. While there, Thomas visited some of the worst-affected areas and found hope in the ordinary people who have been transformed into strong community leaders in the aftermath of the disaster. These community leaders, in the face of insufficient assistance from federal and Puerto Rican authorities, have ultimately strengthened community resilience and self-reliance. Yet they are largely being left out of recovery plans. 

Thomas writes from the road about meeting one of these leaders, Thashiana Dumeng Pérez, who worked with fellow activists from the organization Urbe a Pie to transform an abandoned building into a self-sustaining community shelter. 

It’s a little after 9:00 a.m. in Caguas, Puerto Rico, a city of approximately 135,000 people located about 20 miles south of San Juan. When Hurricane María tore a path of destruction across the island almost a year ago, it passed almost on top of Caguas causing massive damage and leaving residents, who were totally unprepared, without food, water, or power. 

As we drive along the streets in the bright morning sunlight, evidence of the hurricane’s destruction is still visible even almost a year on. Many homes still have “blue roofs,” the temporary roofs installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that are designed to last only 30 days and intended as a temporary measure to protect damaged homes until more durable repairs can be made. As RI previously reported, the installation of blue roofs in Puerto Rico took months, with many severely damaged homes never receiving a blue roof at all. Other homes are still in ruins, the owners most likely having been among the 60 percent of applicants who were denied FEMA assistance, or perhaps one of the hundreds of thousands of residents who left the island altogether. Many businesses remain closed. 

I am in Caguas looking for Thashiana – who was displaced by the hurricane and is now one of the many amazing young people active in the island’s recovery efforts. I find her hard at work in an empty lot that has been transformed into a small recreational park with brightly colored signs and murals and a community garden.

“Tell me about yourself,” I ask Thashiana, “what happened when Hurricane María hit, and how did you become involved with Urbe a Pie?” (Urbe a Pie, or “City by Foot” in English, is the organization that opened the community art gallery in an abandoned building two years ago.) 

She explains that before the hurricane, she was working at Urbe a Pie as a tattoo artist to earn money while studying at a local university. She was renting an apartment nearby. When the hurricane hit, she took refuge at her parents’ house. She returned a few days later to find that her apartment had been flooded all the way to the ceiling, knocking down part of a wall. Her furniture and clothing were soaking wet. The walls and paint were ruined. Fungus soon started to grow on the walls. 

“I applied for FEMA assistance but was denied. My neighbor applied before me, and since there is only one address for both of our units, he got a check, and I did not.” 

Before the storm she had been making around $200 a month as a tattoo artist. 

“After María, people could no longer afford such things, and I had no income.” 

She tried several other jobs, none of which worked out.

“It was horrible,” she tells me. “My landlord had given me a break until February. He had already helped me so much, so I felt I couldn’t stay there any longer. With no job and no place to go, I fell into a deep depression.” 

All the while, she had continued to volunteer with Urbe a Pie. After the hurricane, the organization had quickly expanded to provide food, clothes, and supplies for the hurricane-devastated community. When volunteers from the U.S. mainland arrived to help, they started sleeping in the abandoned floors above the gallery, first on hammocks and then bunkbeds they built from wood. Eventually, Thashiana and her colleagues cleared out the entire building, added additional sleeping spaces, and installed solar panels and a water tank.

They also cleared out the adjacent lot and planted a community garden where Thashiana started working. The garden soon became not only a way for her to feed herself but also to earn extra income from the sale of produce. In April, Thashiana moved into one of the bedrooms in the building. The space is now listed on AirBnB, and people in need of a place to stay who cannot afford the $5 to $8 per night may earn their keep by working in the community garden.

Over time, the organization has moved on from supporting the community’s immediate post-hurricane needs to longer-term programming. The neighborhood in which the building is located is extremely poor. Crime and drug use are rife. 

“The people who live in this community are common people. We want to expand their knowledge and contribute to their personal growth,” she tells me. 

In addition to holding free workshops on art and bicycle repair (for many here, transportation is not affordable), they are setting up a free library. They are also partnering with other organizations including “Hermanos y Hermanas de la Calle,” (Brothers and Sisters of the Street) led by a former sex worker who runs a nearby community thrift shop to provide support and services to sex workers in the community.

I remark how dramatically her life has been changed by the disaster and ask how it’s affected her. 

“For me, I’m trying to transform myself to be more helpful to others. It’s a change from within. Before the hurricane, I had everything. Homeless people made me squeamish. Now, when a homeless person asks me for help, I’m like ‘give me a minute, I’ll be right back!’”

Listening to Thashiana, I realize that if there is a silver lining anywhere in Hurricane María disaster – it is the transformative effect it has had on people like her.

“This change has made me a stronger person. I’ve learned how to survive in any situation. Everything is available around you, you just have to go get it.” 

I ask whether they’ve received any support from the municipality. 

“I met with the mayor and presented our proposal. Because our vision is to meet the needs for free – food, clothes, a place to stay, a bookstore, and knowledge – and to be a self-sustaining project, the government sees it as a threat. They let us do our thing, but they don’t support us.”

We talk about the billions of dollars in recovery funding that has been allocated by the U.S. Congress to support the island’s recovery. I ask her whether she has seen the Puerto Rico Department of Housing’s Action Plan for the use of the first tranche of funding ($1.5 billion out of a total of $20 billion allocated by Congress in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds). 

“I heard there was some money available at the end of July, but we didn’t have time to apply.” 

In fact, the public was given only 14 days to comment on the Action Plan, which initially was published only in English. Given the lack of opportunity for meaningful public input into the plan, local groups have been advocating for the comment period to be extended and for additional public hearings. Although the procedures have now been changed to allow the public 30 days to comment on how the additional funds will be spent, significant concern remains that community organizations are being left out of recovery planning. Ultimately, the risk remains that very few of the billions of dollars in recovery funding will reach them and go instead to private developers, mainly from the U.S. mainland. 

As the Puerto Rico Department of Housing moves forward with implementing community development block grant funding, it is critical that local organizations like Urbe a Pie are not left out. They must be given the opportunity not only to provide meaningful input into how recovery funds are spent but also to access funds to support their own critical work. 

The bottom line is that it was Puerto Ricans themselves who ultimately came through for one another during and in the aftermath of the disaster. This had powerful, transformative effects that ultimately strengthened community resilience and self-reliance. Local community organizations and the work being done by leaders such as Thashiana and her colleagues are instrumental to ensuring a more resilient Puerto Rico. Their efforts must be fostered and supported—not left out.