TOA BAJA — Victor Cartagena walks over to two cars parked outside his house in the town of Toa Baja. His white SUV still doesn’t run but he managed to repair the engine of the Toyota Echo. The back of the black car is still caked with dried dirt, evidence of the horror Victor survived a year ago.
Victor and his wife, Maria Gonzalez, lost everything after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico. The storm’s deluge forced authorities to open a flood gate in the Rio de la Plata dam. They gave no warning to residents.
Torrents of water rushed down the streets, drowning homes in a matter of minutes.
Inside his house, Victor gestures to the thermostat on the wall. The water rose higher. Seven, maybe eight feet.
On the day of the storm, Victor and Maria were staying with her bedridden mother, who lives one street away. They had no power and at midday, Maria began cooking on a small gas stove. That’s when she heard the commotion: “Water! Water!”
It reached up to their knees and kept rising. In less than 15 minutes it was chest high.
Family members and neighbors reacted quickly, wrapping Maria’s mother in bed sheets. She was carried to safety to the second floor of a neighbor’s house.
Victor says they didn’t leave the neighborhood until a flatbed crane came to rescue them. It was the only vehicle large enough to travel through the flooded streets.
Victor and Maria’s family was one of 2,000 families who had to be rescued from the flooding in Toa Baja, says Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico’s governor.
The couple was forced to stay with their son for two months. When they returned home, they didn’t even have a place to sleep.
“We spent two nights sitting in a chair,” Victor says.
After that, they slept on a mattress a friend gave them as they began the arduous task of removing damaged things from their house.
“The fridge fell, it turned over, the stove --- well, everything,” Victor says.
They alternated between throwing things out and cleaning what was left. The receding water from the river left behind mud that slowly dried around them.
Maria and Victor filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Finally, in December, they received some help.
But it took until March to get their power back.
They began rebuilding by changing the doors. Friends donated a bedroom set, a new couch. Without their friends, Maria says, she and Victor would not have been able to piece their life back together. Some of their neighbors are still struggling and have not received compensation from insurance companies.
“Many people have not been able to overcome this,” Victor says.
Maria’s cousin, Javier Jimenez, lives in the house next to where the couple took refuge during the flooding, along with 14 other people. Neighbors helped him break down his door so that he and his mother could get out of their house.
Like Maria and Victor, Javier lost everything.
“It’s sad. It’s real sad,” he says.
Javier cried for months. Life, he says, will never be the same.
Still, Javier, Maria and Victor are the lucky ones. They survived. So did Maria’s mother. The old and the poor were the most vulnerable during the storm.
Maria’s mother suffered a stroke and remains confined to her bed. She has not been able to leave the house and does not realize the severity of the storm’s toll on Toa Baja.
From their front porch, Maria and Victor look out onto the street they call home, Calle Espuela de Galán. Nearby, workers are clearing away debris.
Their house is a shell of its former self, even if filled with new furniture. All that was familiar is gone. And it will be a long time before it again feels like home.
A WUFT News Special Report | September 20, 2018