The memory of Hurricane Maria still lives with Carmen Cotto.
“The hurricane devastated the island,” Cotto said. “It devastated me. It devastated my family. And every family. Because opening the door, and seeing what we saw, it still brings tears to my eyes.”
Thousands of Puerto Ricans like Cotto left their homes on the island to live in Connecticut after Hurricane Maria hit last fall. Now, as Puerto Rico slowly recovers from the storm, some are returning home.
Cotto sat in the lobby of the hotel she’s been living in in downtown Hartford. Her flight was scheduled to leave early the next morning. For several months after the storm, she received federal aid to stay at another hotel in Hartford -- the Red Roof Inn -- where she met dozens of other hurricane evacuees. She said they supported each other through the trauma of living through the storm and its aftermath.
“But the hurricane brought unity, brought laughter. Because of that, we were able to cry together, laugh together, and be successful, or fall together -- at least at the Red Roof Plus,” Cotto said, laughing.
Many of the families living in the hotel with her were new to the mainland and struggled to find jobs and housing. Before moving to Puerto Rico for health reasons last year, Cotto had been a social worker in Hartford for many years. So it was natural for her to step into the role as an advocate, a translator, and a spokesperson at the hotel. She became known at there as “la madrina” -- the godmother.
But now, as her federal hotel aid ends, it’s time for Cotto to go back to the island. She’ll be taking care of her elderly parents, who returned to the island last week. Cotto said she wants to help with the recovery effort -- and prepare for future hurricanes.
“Puerto Rico is home. If I am a voice, I’d rather be a voice in Puerto Rico,” she said. “I can speak about the injustices happening there, I can assist with whatever I can, however I can. But if I’m not present there to make a difference, then I don’t have a right to complain of everything that’s happening with Puerto Rico.”
Cotto said living on the island after Maria will be an adjustment. But she said her time helping others on the mainland has given her strength to take on the new normal of life in Puerto Rico.