You only have to ask Ramón Luis Morales once to know that the trauma of Hurricane Maria is still fresh.
“In Maria, it destroyed the whole roof, destroyed my cars, destroyed my life. It was not easy,” he said.
Morales said he was denied FEMA assistance. So he’s stuck waiting for help from volunteers. Until he gets it, he sleeps with his wife and son in just one room. Often, his blue tarp still leaks; some days there is power, but on this day there wasn’t, on a day when all of Puerto Rico was watching the remnants of a tropical storm about to pass through.
“We just worry, at any minute, we’re going to lose whatever we have left. It’s not much, but at least it’s ours,” Morales said. “And when you have a house – that’s one thing I learned in life from my parents – you have everything...When you lose that, that’s the moment you know that everything is [lost].”
So you’d think that, with a storm on its way, Morales would have been at his house with his family. But he wasn’t.
“This is somebody I am helping to fix his roof and his walls,” Morales said, referring to Manuel Antonio Perez Rosa, whose house only recently got a roof. “Because he was worse than me.”
We met over the course of a couple days at the home of Manuel Antonio Perez Rosa. He lives in Manati, 40 or so minutes west of San Juan. His house is a small, wood-frame structure with a metal roof – half of which Maria and its fallen trees destroyed. Since the storm wrecked his bed, Perez Rosa sleeps on a small loveseat by the door, with the back of the house open to the elements.
“All the ceiling fell down over my house, and everything like that,” he said. “I lost everything in my house inside, too. The clothes and everything.”
Perez Rosa says he was also denied FEMA help at first. But eventually he was able to get a few thousand dollars to make temporary, essential home repairs -- but there’s no money for labor. That’s where volunteers come in. John Villamil-Casanova is helping coordinate the work for a volunteer nonprofit.
“It’s helping those that were totally forgotten. Helping those that were totally desperate,” Villamil-Casanova said.
He said this is neighbors helping neighbors, which is important – especially as the hurricane season progresses. He said there’s still a lot of need and a lot of anguish.
“What’s gonna happen? How are we going to manage this, this season?” he said. “We know that we’re very resilient and we know that we can take as many hits as we can. But it’s the anguish, it’s the desperation. It’s that sense of – I can’t control.”
In an interview, FEMA said many Puerto Ricans are still in situations like these – still trying to rebuild 10 months after the storm because of a daunting combination of factors, including the storm, weak building codes, and the logistical challenge of getting supplies and labor to the island.
All of which means some people are still left to their own devices.
The rains came heavy the next day. Ramón Luis Morales was back at Perez Rosa’s house getting to work.
“The first day, I work, I clean up, I strip everything down,” he said “The second day, I put the main beams.”
He was running out of 2-by-4-inch lumber, so Morales found and cut what he could to frame out the windows. As Morales worked, he remembered his own Maria experience. A few days after it was over, he was running short on food and water. That’s when he made it to an emergency medical shelter and found help. He got emotional thinking about it.
“You know, you feel good. It made me feel good, the way they treat me,” Morales said. “I was Rhode Island National Guard in the '80s in Providence. And, you say, you know, thank you for your service.”
Which is to say that, when he was desperate for help, someone gave it to him. Now, it’s his turn.
"He’s living worse than I," he said. "If you don’t take charge, what is the reason to be in a civilization? This is one thing that you have to help each other.”
Especially after a storm as violent as Maria.
“This is not a joke,” he said. “And not too many people took it literally. Now they know. You don’t mess with Mother Nature. Not anymore.”
Morales said it’s a lesson no one can ignore.