Puerto Rico marks 1 year since Maria with song and sadness
In this Sept. 8, 2018 photo, Alma Morales Rosario poses for a portrait between the beams of her home being rebuilt after it was destroyed by Hurricane Maria one year ago in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Morovis, Puerto Rico. Rosario, who is incapacitated by diabetes and a blood disease, took a loan to upgrade her home before the storm hit, and lost everything. After the storm, Rosario rented a home until she could no longer afford it on her monthly $598 dollar pension and now splits her time living with her mother and daughter. Rosario said she already spent her $7,000 dollars of FEMA aid, and is now using money from a relative, who is also helping her with the labor of rebuilding her home, but says she knows there’s not enough money for all the materials. “I hope with God’s help to have the house closed on the outside, walls and ceiling in November. But if it’s not possible, I’ll make a room with the wood I have under the structure and live there until I can finish it. I never thought this was going to happen to me,” she said. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
In this Sept. 7, 2018 photo, a woman with her child receives free diapers and shower gel, as she and others line up for food and other donated staples from the MARC Ministry, a non-profit charity in Manati, Puerto Rico. Charity workers say most of the needy who come to them are ill pensioners, seniors, students and the unemployed. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 13, 2018 photo, a girl helps her mother carry donated food and other staples handed out to needy residents by the MARC Ministry, a non-profit charity in Manati, Puerto Rico. Charity workers say the number of needy lining up for food has doubled since the storm, and there are days when they run out of food. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 12, 2018 photo, a piano stands in a restaurant destroyed one year ago by Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. Businesses closures due to the storm’s destruction, or bankruptcy after Maria’s passage, triggered 15,000 requests for local government subsidies from people who lost their jobs, most of them in the tourism sector after sea-side establishments were wiped out. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 8, 2018 photo, a home that was abandoned after Hurricane Maria hit one year ago stands full of furniture in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Morovis, Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans living below the poverty line were pushed to the brink of despair by the storm, struggling for food, housing and medicine. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 7, 2018 photo, a Coca-Cola trailer destroyed one year ago by Hurricane Maria stands on the side of the road in Orocovis, Puerto Rico. Researchers from George Washington University hired by Puerto Rico’s government estimated in August 2018 that 2,975 people had died because of Maria in the six months after landfall, a number Puerto Rico accepted as official. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 11, 2018 photo, a lone wall from a home destroyed one year ago by Hurricane Maria stands in the mountain town of Naranjito, Puerto Rico. Maria destroyed over 200,000 homes on the island, according to the Puerto Rico House of Representatives Public Security Commission President Felix Lasalle. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 8, 2018 photo, vegetation grows over a car that was abandoned one year ago during Hurricane Maria in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Morovis, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s governor said that his administration has adopted new measures to better prepare for a disaster like Maria although he warned of limitations given the U.S. territory’s economic crisis. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 8, 2018 photo, Ramon Alicea Burgos uses a flashlight to read the time on his wall clock in a temporary wooden room he built under the structure of his partially re-built home, unfinished and without electricity due to lack of money, in the mountain town of Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Burgos, 82, said a local doctor is collecting donations from fellow doctors and patients to help him raise money to finish his home. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 8, 2018 photo, Ramon Alicea Burgos walks past his palm tree, with its top broken off one year ago by Hurricane Maria one outside his partially rebuilt home in the mountain town of Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Burgos, 82, partially repaired his home with $14,000 in aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and $6,000 he had saved since his wife died four years ago, but says the funds are insufficient after a spike building material costs. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
This Sept. 8, 2018 photo shows some of Ramon Alicea Burgos’ belongings inside a temporary room he built under the structure of his partially built home, unfinished for lack of funds, in the mountain town of Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. The 82-year-old widower said Hurricane Maria destroyed everything he had. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 9, 2018 photo, Gilberto Cosme Rodriguez takes one of his 10 a day asthma treatments to help him breathe, inside his home still covered with a tarp after FEMA assistance failed to cover the cost of fixing his roof that was torn off by last year’s Hurricane Maria in Naranjito, Puerto Rico. Rodriguez, who has one working lung due to pulmonary fibrosis triggered by the use of chemicals when he worked in construction, said every morning he needs treatment to get out of bed. On a pension of $300 dollars, Rodriguez said it’s barely enough to buy medicine. “I start the day like a dead person because of this lung problem,” he said. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 7, 2018 photo, a man with back problems uses his cane to carry food and other staples donated from from the MARC Ministry, a non-profit charity in Manati, Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20, 2017, thousands of Puerto Ricans living below the poverty line were pushed to the brink of despair. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 7, 2018 photo, Elia de Jesus Acebedo waits in line for donated food and other basic goods from the MARC Ministry, a non-profit charity in Manati, Puerto Rico. Acebedo, 67, said she and her sister rented a home that was destroyed by Hurricane Maria one year go, leaving them with nothing. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 8, 2018 photo, farm worker Angel Reyes gets a haircut by barber Luis Otero, who offers his service at a bus stop for $7 dollars, on the road between Morovis to Orocovis, Puerto Rico. Reyes said the storm broke his home’s windows and part of the roof, but FEMA denied him rebuilding assistance, so he decided to take his government pension in one lump sum, instead of monthly payments. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Sept. 8, 2018 photo, Ramon Alicea Burgos washes a plate under his partially rebuilt home, unfinished for lack of funds in the mountain town of Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Burgos, 82, said he does not want to go to a retirement home for seniors, adding that he’s strong and his father lived to be 106. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Clapping and raising their hands to the sky, hundreds of people clad in white gathered at an 18th-century fort in the Puerto Rican capital on Thursday to remember the thousands who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria as the U.S. territory struggles to recover one year after the Category 4 storm hit.
Religious leaders and government officials recalled how Puerto Rico was ravaged by the storm that killed an estimated 2,975 people and caused more than an estimated $100 billion in damage.
Tens of thousands remain without adequate shelter or reliable electrical power, a sad fact that Gov. Ricardo Rossello noted on Thursday.
“After that catastrophic experience, we acknowledge how complex and difficult it is to prepare for a hurricane of that magnitude and fury,” Rosello said. “The best tribute we can give these people, these brothers that we’ve lost, is to build a better Puerto Rico for their sons, their grandsons and their families.”
While the U.S. government has invested billions of dollars to help clean up and repair the U.S. territory, much work remains. Major power outages are still being reported, tens of thousands of insurance claims are still pending and nearly 60,000 homes still have temporary roofs unable to withstand a Category 1 hurricane.
“I think it’s inexplicable,” Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s secretary general, told The Associated Press during a visit to the island Thursday. “There’s no justifiable reason I can see for this gross level of negligence.”
Across the island, people marked the one-year anniversary with gatherings large and small, solemn and anger-tinged — and at times, even hopeful.
In the coastal fishing and farming village of Yabucoa, the strains of one of Puerto Rico’s most beloved songs filled the air at 6:15 a.m., the exact moment the storm made landfall there one year ago.
Tarps still covered many homes that have yet to be rebuilt in the town of 37,000, even as the nostalgic strains of “Amanecer Borincano” — “Puerto Rican Dawn” — resonated at the spot where Maria first unleashed its fury.
“I am the light of the morning that illuminates new paths,” a choir sang as dozens of local officials and residents gathered there. “I am the son of palm trees, of fields and rivers.”
In San Juan, the crowd of worshippers gathered at the 230-year-old San Cristobal fort sang and prayed along with pastors and musicians on stage, with music echoing through the fort’s heavy walls as the sun slowly sank into the sea behind them.
Pastor Elder Gonzalez said he and other volunteers who flew to Puerto Rico after the hurricane to help were shocked at what he saw from up high.
“To see the island of enchantment was a deep and painful experience,” he said. “No one on the plane said a word.”
Government officials argue that many changes have been made to better prepare Puerto Rico for future storms, but they acknowledge that significant obstacles remain.
Jose Ortiz, director of Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, told reporters that 20 percent of repairs made to the power grid need to be redone. He said crews didn’t have access to the best materials at the time or were forced to rely on temporary fixes, such as using trees as makeshift power polls after Maria destroyed up to 75 percent of transmission lines.
In addition, municipal officials have complained that reconstruction efforts are too slow. Ariel Soto, assistant to the mayor of the mountain town of Morovis, said that 220 families there remain without a proper roof.
“We’re still waiting for help,” he said. “This hit us hard.”
In San Juan, among those still living under a blue tarp during the peak of hurricane season was Sixta Gladys Pena, a 72-year-old community leader.
“You worry, because you think it’s going to fly off like it did before,” she said. “We’ve lost an entire year and nothing has been resolved. You feel powerless.”
On Thursday, Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced in San Juan that $1.5 billion was being released to Puerto Rico as part of the overall $20 billion pledged for rebuilding, the largest in the agency’s history.
Officials said the priority is to help people still living under tarps, as well as those in low- and middle-income housing. The money will be used to repair and rebuild homes, relocate people and help them obtain property titles if needed.
“The path forward is challenging and will be measured not in months, but really in years,” Carson said.
In recent weeks, Puerto Ricans have become increasingly angry and frustrated as President Donald Trump touted what he said was a “fantastic” response to Hurricane Maria, calling it an “unsung success” as he denied the official death toll without presenting any evidence.
On Thursday, Trump issued a one-sentence statement on the one-year anniversary of Maria. “We stand with Puerto Rico, and we are helping them to rebuild stronger and better than ever before,” it said.
Nivia Rodriguez, a 60-year-old retiree whose uncle died a week after Maria, is among those disgruntled by Trump’s comments, as well as by videos of rescue crews responding to Hurricane Florence in North Carolina.
“They saved five dogs that were drowning,” she said of the rescue effort after Florence hit, adding that she feels Puerto Rico didn’t get the same treatment. “That hits you.”
Like many, Rodriguez hoped that after Thursday, she would no longer be bombarded by photos and videos that make her feel like she’s reliving Hurricane Maria.
“It’s too much,” she said.
But others felt that Maria’s tragic legacy still needs to be acknowledged, even long after the anniversary has passed. Among them was a group of artists unveiling an exhibition called simply, “6:15 A.M.”
Artist Omar Banuchi, who organized the exhibit, said he was reluctant at first, in part because he didn’t know how to approach the subject. “It’s something that affected all of us and keeps affecting us,” he said.
He said the exhibition walks a fine line, with some paintings showing beautiful landscapes alongside trailers set up by Puerto Rico’s forensics institute as part of the effort to try to identify the bodies of those who perished in the storm. There also will be live music that will incorporate sounds of the hurricane hitting the island.
“The point is for people to have a good time,” Banuchi said. “But there will be certain uncomfortable moments. ... Maria is still a difficult topic.”