Puerto Rico’s mountain communities cope with Hurricane Maria’s aftermath
Puerto Rico’s rural mountain towns and municipalities were some of the last to receive aid after Hurricane Maria because of their remote location and the island’s relatively poor roads. Many of the people in these areas are older residents who have chosen to stay on the island rather than migrate to the mainland United States. Due to age and lack of resources, they are some of Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable people – but they are also among the most resourceful and resilient.
Adjuntas is located in the central mountain range of Puerto Rico. Known by islanders as “La ciudad del gigante dormido,” (The city of the sleeping giant), Adjuntas sits atop some of Puerto Rico’s tallest mountains.
Half of the population falls below the average median income, making Adjuntas one of the poorest mountain towns in Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Maria left over 18,000 people without electricity for over six months.
After Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico, Carmen Roman,85, was left without electricity and access to food, roads, and clean water. She lives miles away from the city center but travels down the mountains of Adjuntas by foot to visit friends and family a few times a week. She is known to some in the town as the Mountain Lady. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
The name Maria has changed the way Pablo J. Sanabria, 94, feels. Since his birth in 1924, he has never experienced a more difficult hurricane. 'Talking about this hurricane gives me goosebumps. I have nightmares every night.' Hurricane Maria left Sanabria without electricity for over five months. He is the owner of La Casa de Postales, a postcard business that has been operating since the 1950s. The doors to his business are once again wide open and he now has electricity. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
The night that Hurricane Maria made landfall, Olga Pagan Alicea, 63, spent the night in the safety of her daughter’s home. The winds battered the walls of the concrete home. Water began pouring in through the windows and roof. She never went to sleep that night. Through the hazy living room window, she could see her roofless house off in the distance. She had lived 27 years in the house. Her children were raised there. 'I’ve cried a lot. I try to smile but I can’t. I wish I were in my house.' (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Yauco is a large municipality located in southwest Puerto Rico. Yauco starts in the central mountain range of the island and rolls down into a valley extending to the Caribbean Sea. Known as “El Pueblo de Cafe,” (Coffee City), Yauco is the main producer of coffee on the island.
In 1899 Hurricane San Ciriaco, a category four hurricane, tore through the island’s coffee plantations and devastated the coffee production, with damages totalling approximately $10 million.
Hurricane Maria did the same, leaving coffee farmers throughout Yauco with little to no hope of rebuilding their industry.
Yauco is a large municipality located in the southwest of Puerto Rico. Yauco starts in the central mountain range of the island and rolls down into a valley extending to the Caribbean Sea. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Manuel Dox is the owner of Hacienda Mireia, a coffee farm in the high mountains of Yauco. Dox’s grandfather was a coffee farmer and inspired Dox to leave his finance job in New York City and pursue coffee farming. After Hurricane Irma and Maria ravaged the island, Dox’s 50 acre coffee plantation was completely destroyed, leaving him and his wife scrambling to make ends meet. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Dox named his coffee plantation after his wife Mireia Casamitjana, who he met while they were studying in Babson College in Massachusetts. After he expressed his passion for starting a coffee plantation, Mireia left her pharmaceutical job in Barcelona and joined Dox. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
“This is our little experiment,” said Dox. Since the hurricane, Dox and his workers were able to re-plant 1,500 coffee plants. They started a coffee plant nursery with the coffee beans they salvaged from the hurricane. Dox said that the Puerto Rican government is responsible for providing coffee farmers with plants to help sustain their farms, but the process has been problematic since the hurricane. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Dox and his wife decided to move out of their home and into an empty house on their property to give one of his right hand man’s family a place to live after Hurricane Maria destroyed their home. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
‘A man and his wife can only do so much,’ said Dox after explaining how they are slowly running out of money to invest in the coffee plantation. ‘From making six figures in New York City to barely making anything ... We are living off of savings and Puerto Rican farmers insurance. To rebuild what we used to have and make this plantation productive, it takes much more than what we receive.’ (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Known by islanders as “Los Valerosos,” (The Valiant Ones), Ciales is located in the central mountain range of Puerto Rico.
Half of the population falls below the average median income, making Ciales one of Puerto Rico’s poorest mountain towns.
Hurricane Maria ravaged Ciales leaving over 19,000 people incapable of accessing roads and without light for over six months. Ciales is only 45 minutes away from the island’s metropolitan center of San Juan, but many residents did not see FEMA agents until a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall.
The Roja family members have lived in Ciales their entire life. Hurricane Maria completely destroyed the family’s home and they were forced to leave. They found refuge in a home that was lended to them by a neighbor who lives in the mainland United States. The temporarily home also suffered severe damage. A blue FEMA tarp serves as a roof for parts of the home. There are seven kids in the Roja family: Kaxushaka, 12, Francheska, 17, Benjamin, 8, Angeles, 8, Julio, 7, Mariela, 12, and Joselyn, 15. Their mother is not in their lives, after a custody dispute with their father. Their father works to provide for them, but in the home, the oldest sisters, Francheska and Joselyn play the mother’s role. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Seven-year-old Julio is the youngest of the Roja family. The night Hurricane Maria hit the mountain town of Ciales, he did not sleep. His sister, Angeles, 8, watched over Julio as he cried throughout the night. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Benjamin Roja, 8, hasn't given up on his dream. Despite the family’s living conditions and the added difficulties of the hurricane, Roja wants to continue going to school and one day become a doctor. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Kaxushaka Roja shares a room with her three sisters. Despite being only 12 years old, she does her part to take care of her younger siblings. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Benjamin and Julio Roja, playing here with sisters Joselyn and Angeles, share a small room with their father. The roof was destroyed by the Hurricane so they make due with a tarp that paints the room a shade of blue. Blue used to Benjamin’s favorite color but after the Hurricane, it has changed to red. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Barrio Real, Patillas
Barrio Real is a small suburb in Patillas which is located on the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico. Patillas is known by islanders as “La Esmeralda del Sur” (The Emerald of the South), for its lush green mountains that roll to the coast.
Fifty-five percent of Barrio Real’s population is retired and many live below the poverty line.
Barrio Real does not use Puerto Rico’s water reserve and filtration system that most of the island uses. The community relies on their own filtration system to purify water from the river that flows through the the small mountain community. However, with the loss of electricity because of Hurricane Maria, Barrio Real residents also lost their access to clean drinking water.
Dona Chefa is 88 years-old. She was born and raised in Patillas where she and her late husband raised their family. 'I can’t leave this home. I know more than half is destroyed but this where I am happy. This is my home,' Chefa said in Spanish. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Along with losing electricity and access to clean drinking water, Dona Chefa’s home was severely damaged by Hurricane Maria. The entire second level of her home, where her daughter used to live, completely lost the roof and flooded. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Dona Chefa remembers seeing the river behind her home flow the opposite direction the night that Hurricane Maria made landfall. The 175 mph winds were so powerful, they altered the paths of rivers, destroyed homes and left the green mountains of Patillas dark brown, like a wildfire had passed through the island. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Porfirio Fraticelli is a retired police officer in charge of the water filtration system in Barrio Real. He lives off his retirement pension and volunteers his time to oversee the water plant. 'I feel like it is my responsibility to bring clean drinking water to my community once again, but it is not easy to do,' Fraticelli said in Spanish. 'We don’t have electricity and clean water.' Fraticelli’s wife suffers from Alzheimer's and said Hurricane Maria has made his life harder. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Porfirio Fraticelli and Mori Neumann, a water engineer with IsraAID, an Israeli NGO focused on humanitarian aid, have been able to craft a design that could bring clean drinking water to residents of Barrio Real, using a gravitation water filtration system that does not rely on electricity. In the meantime, Neuman and Fraticelli have been using other sanitation methods to give clean water to Barrio Real residents. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project
Everyday, Porfirio Fraticelli walks up a winding trail that leads to a waterfall to check if the water filtration system. He is 68 years-old and is worried he is getting to old for the job, but doesn’t know of anyone who is willing to take over his position, as a full-time volunteer. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Barrio Real is a small suburb in Patillas which is located on the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Ponce is the second largest city/municipality in Puerto Rico following San Juan. Known as “La Perla del Sur,” (The Pearl of the South), Ponce’s northern boundary begins in a mountainous region that flows into a valley and reaches the island’s southern coast.
After Hurricane Maria made landfall, Ponce’s population of almost 200,000 lost electricity and easy access to food and water. Though much of Ponce’s coastline and city center regained power relatively quickly, farmers in the mountain regions remained without power for months.
Kurt Legner, owner of Hacienda Pomarrosa, a coffee plantation in the mountains of Ponce, has dedicated his life to the coffee industry. He and his wife and co-owner of the hacienda, Eva Lisa Santiago, knew that starting and owning a business would be hard, but they were not prepared for the destruction of Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Kurt Legner and Eva Lisa Santiago offer tours, coffee tastings and bed and breakfast lodging on their hacienda but since Hurricane Maria, tourism to the central parts of the island has fallen off. ‘It has been very hard since the hurricane. We have not had as many people come to tour,’ said Legner. ‘But we are hopeful this will change.’ (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Only 1,500 of the over 7,000 coffee plants survived on Hacienda Pomarrosa after Hurricane Maria. Six months later, owner Kurt Legner started seeing the remaining coffee plants blossom throughout the hacienda. ‘There is new life that Hurricane Maria has brought us,’ said Legner. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Hacienda Pomarrosa still produces coffee, but at a much smaller scale. Though thousands of coffee plants were lost because of the hurricane, Santiago is determined to serve all her guests cappuccinos or expressos. The demand for their coffee is high, but because of the hurricane they have been selling their coffee beans online. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Kurt Legner and Eva Lisa Santiago’s son moved from the island to pursue his own career in the coffee industry. Legner wishes his son would come back to the island and help with Hacienda Pomarrosa but knows that because of the destruction of Hurricane Maria his son will not have opportunities in Puerto Rico. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Hurricane Maria did not crush Eva Lisa Santiago’s spirit. She said she has poured her entire life’s savings into the business and will do everything she can to see Hacienda Pomarrosa grow. ‘Look at this rose,’ Santiago said. ‘Hurricane Maria scarred our land but still we see life coming back. There is still life in Puerto Rico.’ (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
Ponce is the second largest city/municipality in Puerto Rico following San Juan. (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite Borderlands Project)