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Weeks After Maria, Bringing The Basics To Puerto Rico

We drove to Caguas, a city south of San Juan, four weeks after Hurricane Maria hit. Our guide was Luis Cotto -- a former Hartford city councilman now living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We traveled to Puerto Rico to tell stories; he traveled to deliver thousands of dollars in inflatable solar lights and water filters to people who need them, including members of his family.

Lea estahistoria en español. / Read this story in Spanish.

We stopped to ask for directions in a place call Villa del Rey.  

“We don’t have help from nobody, man,” said Jose Ayala, 59, who grew up in Holyoke, Mass.

What began as a search for directions became a microrelief effort.

“The mayor from here, our mayor -- we haven’t seen him,” he said. “Just you three guys. You’re the first guys that came in here. Not even the police come in here. This is a project and they’re scared of people in here, I think.”

Cotto got a few inflatable, light-up solar lanterns and some water filters from one of the 13 pieces of luggage he brought to the island. Because here, in Caguas, lights and water were hard to come by. Rather than just leave them with folks, he demonstrated how to use them.

Ayala said there’s one pressing priority.

“Water, that’s all we need. Water to drink,” he said. “We go to the stores and they give you one gallon of water or two gallons of water and that’s it.”

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Jose Ayala lives in Villa del Rey, a housing development in Caguas. He said the small bag of supplies delivered by Luis Cotto were the first aid he's seen since the hurricane hit four weeks before.

After the demonstrations were done, we said goodbye and got back in the car to try and find the person we were actually looking for in Caguas. Her name is Aida Garcia. She’s the grandmother of another Hartford resident -- board of education member Robert Cotto.

When we found her, her son Ricardo was mopping the water out of her house. Hurricane Maria had ripped the roof off her bedroom. They tried to fix it, but the fix wasn’t good enough to keep the rain out.

She didn’t have electricity. The only flashlights she had were on the two magnifying glasses she uses to read.  

Garcia said she isn’t too concerned with either electricity or water. The thing she wants is her roof to be fixed. The standing water in her home is causing her asthma problems.

“Llega,” she said of the electricity, which is to say that it will arrive, but she’s not too concerned about it.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Aida Garcia of Caguas, Puerto Rico is the grandmother of Hartford resident and city board of education member Robert Cotto Jr.

But her daughter, Gisela Cotto, was less patient than her mother.

“Because I hear the news and I see the things they’re getting from the United States for us over there and nobody has come over here,” she said. “And, you know, it’s not well to be without light so many days. With[out] water. We have kids. Grandkids.”

From Caguas, it’s off to Cidra -- the mountain town that is the home of Cotto’s family. His parents moved back here from Hartford to retire, and this was the place he originally chose to try and help.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Former Hartford City Councilman Luis Cotto speaks to a woman through her front gate in Cidra -- his family's hometown. He was there handing out solar lamps and water filters.

“I chose this bloquera, this sector, partly because this is the family hometown, the home area, to distribute solar lights, water filters, and try to install some solar panels in homes throughout the sector,” he said.

While the storm has destroyed the landscape around Cidra, it also had its personal toll. And that trauma lingers particularly with Paula Santiago, Cotto’s aunt.  

“It feels like you’re always scared. That something else is going to come -- another storm. It was awful,” she said. “I think that the storm had the power of a tornado, because when I was hearing the wind, it went like going around the house making a terrible noise like a big motor. And then a whistle.  And it never stopped.”

So she wants to go visit her daughter in Los Angeles. Just to get away and “get the rhythm back,” she said.

“Because the storm got me so scared, I felt like I don’t sleep well because I’m afraid that something else is going to come,” she said. “So I want to go just for a little bit, one or two months, and relax.  And come back. To my house.”

And it looks like she’ll do that. She’s got a flight to the mainland in mid-November -- leaving Puerto Rico if, for nothing else, to get some rest.

This story is part of “The Island Next Door,” WNPR’s reporting project about Puerto Rico and Connecticut after Hurricane Maria.

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director. Then, in 2022, he became a senior enterprise reporter.

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