A year after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, local Rotary members continue to rebuild homes and lives
Eladio Montalvo faced a stark choice: risk drowning in his one-story home or climb through a window into the house next door. It was under construction but had a second floor where he could escape the rising floodwaters. He boosted his dog through and scrambled in after him. The two huddled inside an upstairs bathroom for 22 hours while Hurricane Maria raged over Puerto Rico. With 155 mph winds and torrential rains, Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit the island in more than 80 years.
After the storm, Montalvo went out to see what was left of the home he had lived in since 1958. The walls were standing, but the water inside had risen chest-high. Everything was destroyed. Without any family nearby, he had nowhere to go. He moved into his car.
“But after the storm came the calm,” he says. “Good people came.”
Faustino Rivera pats Montalvo affectionately on the shoulder. It’s September 2018, a year since Hurricane Maria, and Rivera and several other members of the Rotary Club of Mayagüez have stopped by to visit. Montalvo lives in a fishing town called El Maní outside the city of Mayagüez on the island’s west coast. He invites his guests inside to see the progress he has made adding a shower to his bathroom. There’s a pile of tiles that he plans to lay soon, and he has started painting the walls a light shade of blue. The home is neatly but sparsely furnished: a bed, a TV, and a few plastic bins, including one labeled camisas that has shirts and shorts tucked inside.
“He’s become my friend,” says Rotarian Orlando Carlo, who checks in on Montalvo almost every week.
The Mayagüez club paid $4,200 for the materials Montalvo used to add a second story to his home. Made of concrete, outfitted with hurricane shutters, and built high enough off the ground to avoid flooding, the new addition contains a small kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. Montalvo did much of the work himself, calling on friends and neighbors skilled in construction when he needed help.
To find people like Montalvo who needed help but didn’t qualify for reconstruction aid from the U.S. government’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Mayagüez club members worked with community leaders and screened each family. “We are trying to help those who really need help,” Carlo explains. “Those who can’t get it from anyone else.”
By the time Carlo met him, Montalvo had been living in his car for nearly six months. A local church leader introduced the two, hoping Rotarians could help Montalvo find permanent housing. “I could tell immediately that he was severely dehydrated from staying out in the sun and sleeping in his car,” Carlo says. “He seemed stunned and needed guidance on how to start rebuilding. We assured him we were there to help him.”
After the hurricane, Carlo was also living alone. His wife had gone to stay in Florida while he remained behind to run his construction business. But the lack of electricity and reliable communication meant his work projects were stalled, so he mostly spent his days volunteering. “It gave me a lot of time to help,” he says. His home survived the storm, but the shortage of gasoline meant he had to plan his trips carefully. He rationed bottled water and food, eating what he calls a “hurricane diet” of canned pasta or sausage and rice.
“We didn’t have power back until the end of October,” says Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade, president of the Mayagüez club. “We could use one bucket of water per day. My teenage daughter learned that water is the No. 1 thing you need. She could live without electricity and even without her cellphone, but not without water.”
Mayagüez is home to 75,000 people and to the island’s second-oldest Rotary club after San Juan. In the past, the club carried out smaller projects, but the massive devastation caused by Maria motivated members to do more to help their neighbors, especially the very poor.
“I’ve been a Rotarian for 40 years, and I’ve never seen so much help come from other Rotary clubs,” Carlo says. After Hurricane Maria, clubs across the United States wired the Rotary Club of Mayagüez about $50,000 directly; more than half of that money came from the Rotary Club of La Jolla Golden Triangle in California and a group of clubs in New York. As club treasurer, Rivera keeps track of every receipt and sends updates back to the donor clubs. A year after Maria, the club had helped 22 families repair their homes, mostly replacing roofs that were blown off by the hurricane.
Scanning the horizon from a hillside neighborhood nicknamed Felices Días — “Happy Days” — Carlo points out a less-than-happy sight: the many blue FEMA tarps that still stand in for permanent roofs. “There is still a lot of need here. This is not over,” he says. “But we are willing to continue to help as long as it takes.”
And for Montalvo’s part, he has remained optimistic in spite of all he went through. “Hurricane Maria gave me more than she took,” he says.
Rebuilding spirits: Addressing mental health
When Ken McGrath became president of the Rotary Club of San Juan in July 2017, he thought his most arduous task would be planning the celebration of the club’s centennial in 2018. Three months after he took office, Hurricane Maria hit.
“While Maria was a major disaster,” McGrath says, “it had the beneficial effect of invigorating our club to show those in need the real meaning of Rotary.”
By the time he was able to get an internet connection and check his email, McGrath had received 200 messages from clubs around the world offering to help. Rotarians in Puerto Rico started distributing food and water every Saturday. Working with other clubs, they coordinated the distribution of 300,000 pouches of baby food. They even put dog food out for animals that had been left behind.
Once the immediate needs were under control, they started to think about long-term relief.
“So much of the damage isn’t only to the infrastructure; it’s to the spirit,” says John Richardson, a member of the San Juan club and a past district governor. To address mental health after the hurricane, fellow member Bob Bolte suggested the club do something unconventional: apply for a grant to support youth theater.
Bolte had met Antonio Morales in 1995 when the San Juan club installed a library in the housing project where Morales grew up. He was impressed to see that Morales, who was just 14 at the time, was running a theater group for other kids living in his tough neighborhood.
“Theater saved my life,” says Morales, now a 37-year-old actor and director. “My father was a drug lord. My mother was a victim of domestic violence.”
Even though his father had forbidden him to pursue acting, Morales persuaded his mother to secretly take him to an audition at the public performing arts school. “Everything I learned at school, I brought back to the projects,” he says.
Eventually his theater group became an unlikely alternative to gangs in his neighborhood. “When boys reach a certain age, it’s very easy for them to join the drug gangs,” Morales says. “We told them, ‘Come join our club, not them.’ Even the leaders of the gangs supported me. They didn’t want their little brothers to follow in their footsteps.”
After the hurricane, Morales, who now runs the San Juan Drama Company and stars in a TV series called No Me Compares, started visiting housing projects with other actors to spread a message of hope and resilience to young people. “People were desperate. They were bored. They were depressed,” he says. “We decided to go into these communities to give love. We didn’t have aid kits, food, or water to give — but we had our theater experience. So we said, ‘Let’s go and make these people happy.’” With schools closed and the power out, teens turned out in droves.
When Bolte learned what Morales was doing, he suggested Rotary could help. “These theater groups provide almost a second family to a lot of the kids,” Bolte says. “I wanted to help him do this on a wider scale, across multiple neighborhoods.” A $99,700 global grant has allowed Morales to expand the project to four theater groups so far and to pay a stipend to the facilitators of each group. Funding for the grant came from Bob Murray, a former San Juan club member who now lives in Arizona, where he’s a member of the Rotary Club of Scottsdale. In December 2017, Murray gave $1 million to The Rotary Foundation for the recovery effort.
Morales calls the project Teatro Por Amor, or Theater for Love.
Every Wednesday, the Santurce Teatro Por Amor group meets on the second floor of Federico Asenjo school. The sounds of laughter and cheering can be heard from down the hall as students, ranging in age from 11 to mid-20s, perform an improv exercise. Five members of the group squat down in the front of the room, and when the director yells “arriba,” whoever stands up has to improvise a routine together. One boy stands up alone, so he takes off his shoe to pretend it’s a phone. He tells off the friend who “called,” and the room erupts in laughter and applause.
“You come here and you’re not in the streets,” says 18-year-old Nandyshaliz Alejandro, who lives in the same housing project where Morales grew up. This is her first theater experience. “This is one of the few things I actually look forward to.”
Local connections uncover lingering needs
Felix Juan Osorio lifts the corner of his mattress. The underside is rippled with brown water stains, and it smells of mold. One year after Hurricane Maria flooded the family’s home, the mattress is still wet, but they can’t afford a new one.
“I never thought mattresses would be the No. 1 request,” says Armand Piqué, a member of the Rotary Club of San Juan.
Piqué has been working in Loíza, a town not far from San Juan where the Osorio family lives, since he learned people in the area weren’t getting the help they needed.
“There are certain areas where it is difficult to get in if you don’t know someone,” Piqué explains, adding that drug trafficking can make it dangerous for strangers to enter certain parts of Loíza. The Villa Santo neighborhood is one of those areas. So Piqué worked with a community leader, Ángel Coriano, to find out what families needed. Coriano, who grew up in the area and now works for the Puerto Rico Department of Health, is the type of person who knows everyone.
“I was listening to what all these people were asking,” Piqué says. “And I thought, our club cannot provide everything that’s on this list. I need to find the thing that is most pressing, something that they really need.” Again and again, people brought up mattresses. Unlike other furniture, mattresses, once wet, don’t dry out. So far, Rotarians have distributed hundreds of mattresses across the island.
Before receiving her new mattress, Felix Juan Osorio’s neighbor, Maritza Osorio, had been sleeping on a damaged mattress, the springs poking her ribs. She suffers from pulmonary hypertension, and the lack of rest took a toll on her already fragile health. “I could hardly sleep,” she says. “Now I’m comfortable. I’m able to sleep, and I’m feeling better.”
Building a better future
It’s a bright, sunny morning in Rubias, a picturesque farming village in the mountains about 35 miles east of Mayagüez. In a few hours, that sun will begin to power a new water filter, providing the 100 families who live here with access to clean drinking water for the first time.
Ken Surritte is guiding José Lucas Rodríguez Fontánez, a member of the Rotary Club of Yauco, through the installation of a SunSpring water filtration system. Surritte founded the organization Water Is Life with the goal of installing SunSpring filters wherever people lack clean water. The Yauco club teamed up with Water Is Life to bring the system to Rubias and two other towns, with most of the funding coming from Bob Murray’s donation to The Rotary Foundation.
“Now the whole community will have clean water,” says Rodríguez. “Because this system runs on solar power, it will work even when the electricity is out.”
Rotary is about touching other people’s lives, and in doing that, you’re transformed too.
Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade
Rotary Club of Mayagüez president
Rodríguez was governor of District 7000, which covers the entire island of Puerto Rico, when Maria hit. He became a primary contact person as clubs across the island began to organize relief efforts. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, he coordinated the distribution of necessities such as food and water. Now he’s focused on helping Puerto Rico rebuild.
“We wanted to do something to make life better than it was before,” Rodríguez explains. The club decided to help the people in Rubias because it’s one of more than 200 villages so remote that they are not served by Puerto Rico’s sewer and aqueduct authority. Instead, families here had constructed a rudimentary electric-powered system to pipe water from a nearby stream into people’s homes. They use that water to wash dishes and bathe, but must drive an hour to the nearest grocery store to buy bottled water to drink.
Hurricane Maria decimated the town. “Everything we were growing was gone,” says Yolanda Pacheco. Mudslides washed coffee and banana trees — along with a giant chunk of the only road in town — down the mountainside. The electricity was out, and the town was completely cut off. “My husband couldn’t sleep,” Pacheco says. “He was going out of his mind with worry.” For four months, the family’s only source of light was a flashlight. They collected rainwater to bathe.
Now, after six hours of work in the 90-degree heat and oppressive humidity, Surritte has the SunSpring system up and running. He explains how it works to a small crowd gathered around the tall silver cylinder.
“The filter acts as a block for the bacteria and contaminants,” he explains through an interpreter. “So only the safe water comes out through the tap.” He invites everyone to join him in trying the water. The crowd is a little tentative, but one by one, they fill up cups, smiling.
“God knew what we needed,” says Mariano Feliciano, a community leader who will maintain the filter. “We’re so grateful for this water.”
Eladio Montalvo’s neighbors gather in front of his home and marvel at its transformation. With its fresh coat of white paint set off by dark red trim, the house, Montalvo says, “is my palace.”
On a Saturday in late October 2018, a group of college students from the Rotaract club at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez spent the day painting the exterior of the home.
“He was so touched that young people had come and taken an interest in him,” says von Hillebrandt-Andrade, the Mayagüez Rotary club president, who organized the project with the Rotaract club. “The Rotaractors were also touched by Eladio’s story. Some of them never realized the hardships people went through during the hurricane, and his resilience is something I think they will carry with them forever.”
A few weeks later, Mayagüez club members visited again, dropping off turkey, rice with peas, salad, and pie so Montalvo could have his neighbors over for Thanksgiving. “We’ve established a lasting relationship with him,” von Hillebrandt-Andrade says. “Rotary is about touching other people’s lives, and in doing that, you’re transformed too.”