It’s a little after 9 a.m. this past Tuesday when don Fermín Pérez tries to make sense of a past that’s not quite history yet. It’s been one year since Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, and unlike the vast majority of his countrymen, don Fermín still doesn’t have electric power at his home, forcing him into survival mode every single day.
We are in barrio Calabazas Arriba (Pumpkin Heights, if you will) in Yabucoa, a little town in the southeastern coast of the island. As the sun rises slowly, don Fermín goes over whatever he still has left. Having just turned 70, he lives alone, doesn’t receive Social Security benefits, and lacks the resources to go downtown and ask for the public assistance he desperately needs.
After Hurricane Maria, no one from Yabucoa’s municipal government ever went by his home. As don Fermín says, American brigades were unable to reestablish electric power, since they couldn’t find a way to connect his residency with a light pole located about 10 steps from his front door.
“American brigades with gringo workers passed through this area. I never saw Puerto Ricans working to fix this issue. Everyone around here started getting electric power back, but since I don’t have any money and don’t get any assistance aside from government coupons, I couldn’t do anything to fix it. I lost what they call the “condulete,” which helps connect the post with the house. Since I don’t have money, it couldn’t be fixed,” he told Metro.
With an absent look on his face, don Fermín invites us to sit down in the small porch where he hopelessly spends the days alongside his two small cats. Don Fermín reminisces about the catastrophic hurricane, and the even more tragic aftermath:
“This was all a disaster here. My sister, who came from the mainland, and a longtime friend of mine helped me clean up a little. My sister came with me to the library, where FEMA was, and they told me to seek help from a carpenter, because the house was cracked everywhere after the hurricane. The hurricane broke windows, it broke doors and damaged everything that was inside. Everything I had was soaking wet, so I was left sleeping on a couple rotten mattresses.”
The front door of don Fermín’s home is broken. One of the three rooms doesn’t have a single window and, due to the deplorable conditions in which Hurricane María left the infrastructure of the house, parts of the wall and the ceiling are crumbling. Fungus has completely blackened don Fermín’s bed, and its foul that permeates the inside of the house.
The house where don Fermín has now lived for 31 years is now a threat to his safety.
FEMA went to don Fermín’s house, he told Metro, but nothing happened.
“FEMA told me that Tu Hogar Renace (“Your Home Reborn,” a local government program funded by FEMA) was over. But I don’t know if that’s the truth. I spoke with people that were working for FEMA and a lady came over. She told me ‘Look, show me the documents, the papers that you must have at hand.’ But when I applied for FEMA assistance after the hurricane I didn’t have my papers. That’s why I never received assistance,” don Fermín said.
It’s already10 in the morning and don Fermín explains how he functions when darkness falls. He say that he applied for the Obama Phone Program and that he finds his way around the house with the little flashlight on the phone.
“This lights up and works fine,” he said. “I go to bed and spend the night peacefully. It’s not like I can do anything else.”
A few onions, a sack of potatoes and a dozen eggs is all he has in the cupboard, but don Fermín still invites us to have lunch.
“I buy these groceries every day. Since I don’t have a fridge, I take whatever money I’ve got left to buy basic stuff and survive. I improvised a kitchen and I get it done,” he said.
The U.S. government has said that Puerto Rico’s recovery has been a success since Hurricane Maria, and Puerto Rico’s local government and its Electric Power Authority have said repeatedly that electric power has been re-established throughout the entire island.
And yet, don Fermín keeps waiting in Calabazas Arriba. Yabucoa’s mayor, Rafael Surillo, didn’t reply to requests for comment.