A return home from a distant journey is often comforting. For members of the Puerto Rican community in Connecticut the return to the island for them after Hurricane Maria is far different from their previous trips.
Nina Vázquez, a college student in the Hartford area was born and raised on the island of Puerto Rico. Moving to Connecticut at the age of 13, Vázquez frequently returns to the place she calls home for vacations and family gatherings. Unlike Vázquez’s past travel plans, her most recent trip was daunting.
After Maria, Vázquez felt helpless from being unable to communicate with family members in Puerto Rico as she watched news reports of death tolls increase.
A phone call from her parents during the middle of college midterms week confirmed Nina’s fears -- her grandfather had passed away in the aftermath of the hurricane.
“Even after they communicate with you, are they really okay? They are telling you they’re okay, but are they really? You know, how are their houses? Where are they sleeping?” Vázquez asked. “Another thing on top of that was the death of my grandfather and then that added another thing on top of it.”
Her grandfather’s death from lack of clean drinking water led Vázquez to experience a moment of depression.
“When you know that you were sending resources there via mail that were supposed to help and you know that here you are thinking that everything's okay, everything is stable,” she thought. “Maybe everything is going to work out for the better and then you get a call and they’re like, ‘I’m sorry your loved one passed away’ and you’re like okay well maybe I didn’t get my help there on time. Or maybe I waited a little bit too long and then that adds a whole other level of anxiety and even depression I would say. So it was a very difficult thing to handle.”
After processing the news, Vázquez had to face the difficulties she, her parents, and younger sister would experience traveling to the disaster stricken island for the funeral arrangements.
Vázquez highlighted the severity of the situation.
“It was a very difficult time to have a funeral and a burial where there’s just a shortage of everything going on. So I had a lot of mixed feelings going back home to Puerto Rico,” she said. “I remember thinking ‘Wow. We’re going [at] a moment where people are needing things and people don’t have a lot of resources right now.”
When she and her family arrived at a small airport on the western side of the island, they entered complete darkness. The airport’s power had not been restored and there were no generators for the building.
"What we encountered getting off the plane, that is when reality hit us hard," she said. "The fact that the airport didn’t have a generator and the fact that after four hours of traveling and you’re thinking ‘Maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe it’s okay after a month, things are probably getting back on their feet.’ You go in and then you see that not even an airport is operating correctly."
Staying in her family’s home in Aguada, the Vázquez family was forced into survival mode in the midst of their grieving process.
"We stayed at my house -- no light, no water. So we were basically living like the citizens there that are still residing on the island," she said. "We had to go fetch water in wells and fetch water in an oasis downtown. We had to stand in lines where the military was handing out military food and cases of water. While we were there, people were only eating once a day."
The Vázquez family initially planned on staying in Puerto Rico for a week. However, unanticipated shortages and cancellations of flights back to the United States extended their stay to two weeks.
After weeks of experiencing the living conditions of a post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico, the Vázquez family is back in Connecticut actively raising donations and sending aid to the island.
This story is part of “The Island Next Door,” WNPR’s reporting project about Puerto Rico and Connecticut after Hurricane Maria.