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Hurricane Maria: Two Stories, One Year Later

Sep 18, 2018

Many Puerto Rican’s lost everything when Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017. Tens of thousands of people made the decision to take what belongings they had left and travel to the mainland. Many have started new lives in Central and South Florida. These new Floridians already have had significant influence on political races, the public school system and affordable housing.

This week on Florida Matters, we'll hear the stories of two people who chose to make the Tampa Bay area their new home:

Julio Ildefonso, left, and his mother Mariana Vazquez, right, sit in the living room of their new home in Tampa.
Credit Roberto Roldan

Julio Ildefonso, 49, from Toa Baja, Puerto Rico

Julio Ildefonso spent much of Sept. 20, 2017 watching pieces of his neighbors’ houses fly away at more than 150 mph. He still keeps videos of the storm on his phone, showing them to whoever wants to see the devastation Hurricane Maria wreaked on his rural town of Toa Baja.

“When we looked to our property, we didn’t have no property, we didn’t have no house,” he said. Everything had [flown] away. Our roof was three blocks down, on top of another family’s house.”

The house that Ildefonso and his 66-year-old mother, Mariana Vazquez, had lived in for years was completely destroyed. So too, were the homes of the elderly neighbors who Ildefonso spent much of his time with, playing dominoes and cooking food.

After the hurricane passed through Toa Baja, Ildefonso continued to take care of his aging friends, waking up at 2 a.m. to stand in line for food and water that he would split with them.

He said he begged military personnel and aid workers to travel into the mountainous forest to visit the home-bound residents he knew were living up there. At first, Ildefonso said, they didn’t seem to care. Eventually he got some people to go with him.

“When they got up there and I started showing them this way, that way, they said ‘Oh my God, there’s over 100 people here and we haven’t fed these people for over two weeks already,” he said.

Ildefonso said he was angry when he heard the government report that only 64 people had died as a result of Hurricane Maria. From what he had seen in Toa Baja, he said he knew the death toll couldn’t possibly be that low.

One of those deaths includes Ildefonso's brother, who was killed three days after the hurricane, while working as a security guard. It left Ildefonso as the sole caregiver for their mother, who has dementia.

“We still don’t know how he got killed, because we had to come over here so I could get some help for my mom,” he said. “I can sleep anywhere, but my mom cannot sleep anywhere.”

Ildefonso said he combined his Social Security check with the rebuilding money FEMA gave him to buy plane tickets to Tampa for him and his mother. He also traveled with his disabled, adult cousin.

The trio first settled in with family on the mainland before finding a place in Seffner. But the cost of a three-bedroom house, costing nearly $2,000 a month, was overwhelming for a family on a fixed income, Ildefonso said.

“I didn’t have no peace of mind, because I would always be thinking about next month: How am I going to pay next month, how am I going to pay the light, how am I going to pay the water,” he said. “I did it for seven months, but I couldn’t no more.”

Feeling like he had failed his mother and afraid he would end up on the streets, Ildefonso called Catholic Charities asking for help. The case managers calmed him down and asked him to come in and talk.

As part of a grant from Hillsborough County, the non-profit group provided Ildefonso and his mother with a motel room near Busch Gardens. They lived in a single room at the Roadway Inn for about a month.

Julio Ildefonso and Mariana Vazquez in their room at the Roadway Inn motel back in July.
Credit Roberto Roldan / WUSF Public Media

In August, Catholic Charities moved Ildefonso and his mother into a duplex. He said it’s one of the few times he’s really felt happy and secure since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico a year ago.

“I feel (like I'm) in my house,” he said. “I can see it in my mom’s physical state and my physical state. Before I never had a smile on my face. I always had something to wonder about…Right now, everything is coming into place.”

Ildefonso said he hoped his story draws attention to the rural communities devastated by the hurricane, but that may not receive the same help as the major economic centers such as San Juan or Ponce.

“What about Toa Baja, what about Manatí, what about Vega Baja, what about these other little towns that do not have the tourism in there,” he said. “It probably won’t bring up the economy in Puerto Rico, but you still have families that live there. You have to be paying attention to those people: the ones that don’t have anything.”

Leslie Diaz, center, surrounded by her three children and her niece in Lakeland, Florida.
Credit Courtesy of Leslie Diaz

Leslie Diaz, 35, from Carolina, Puerto Rico

Leslie Diaz was wary of the official warnings as Hurricane Maria approached Puerto Rico.

Storms had been forecast to hit the island before, but they changed trajectory at the last minute.

It was around 5 a.m. on September 20, 2017 when Diaz said she realized this one was different.

“We began hearing the winds howling outside and we would sneak through the windows and notice the debris flying off from other houses,” Diaz said through a translator.

Diaz lived in a comfortable three-bedroom house in the suburbs of Carolina, where she worked at as a baker.  She rode out the storm alongside her husband and three children. They grew nervous as flood waters gushed into every part of the house.

“The room where we had the kids, the room that I thought would not flood, did,” she said. “It was the room that flooded the most. We actually had the most important personal documents – birth certificates, social security cards, all of that – in there.”

Diaz said the aftermath of Hurricane Maria was a haze of lines – for food, water and gasoline.

She desperately wanted to get her kids out of that situation, and decided to move to Tampa after traveling here to visit her family for Christmas.

She reached out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency who put her and her children up in a hotel. Her husband stayed in Puerto Rico to deal with the damage to their home.

“It was a funny situation, actually, because [the kids] thought it was a vacation because we were at a hotel,” she said. “It was difficult for me to find someone to take care of them while I began working.”

As she navigated the maze of applications and fees for an apartment or house, Diaz juggled numerous jobs. The first jobs she found in Tampa were for as part of an overnight cleaning service team and as a school cafeteria worker. She eventually began baking again, and now also works part-time as a telemarketer. 

She said she sometimes misses Puerto Rico, especially the food. But she thinks her children are better off going to school on the mainland. Schools on the island have faced widespread closures and budget cuts.

One year later, Diaz said she tries not to think about the devastation Hurricane Maria brought. Instead, she focuses on everything she’s been able to overcome.

“There are a lot of feelings when I think about my transition with my family here,” she said. “I feel sadness, however I am very proud of myself. I came here by myself, with [my kids] and I juggled these four jobs. In a way, it just makes me feel proud I was able to do all of it.”

And Diaz has a goal - she hopes to open up her own bakery again. This time here in Tampa.

You can hear even more of Julio and Leslie's story, as well as the stories of Hurricane Irma survivors in Tampa Bay at the 5th Annual Story Days in Tampa Bay festival on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at the Poynter Institute Barnes Pavilion, 801 Third Street South in St. Petersburg. The project is a collaboration between WUSF and Your Real Stories, and supported by a grant from the Florida Humanities Council.

For more information about the performance and the weeklong festival, visit YourRealStories.com.