Angel Rodriguez stood on the porch of his apartment overlooking the bay of San Juan. In the distance, a military helicopter was lifting off from an airstrip near the city’s convention center where the hurricane relief effort was being staged.
It was mid-October, more than four weeks after Maria, and San Juan was still recovering. But Rodriguez said that compared to the east side of the island where he grew up -- where the hurricane first made landfall -- the city looks like “Disneyland.”
“I do a comparison between this tourist zone where you find everything. You can go out, you can have warm food, you can have water, you can have drinks,” Rodriguez said. “And out there, it’s different. Out there, I’ve crossed with people who have no oxygen in their tanks. Have no water. Have no roof.”
Since then, Rodriguez said not much has changed on the ground. But the hurricane has radically changed his personal life. After the storm, he was laid off from his job in marketing. His son moved with his ex-wife to live with family in Orlando -- and his parents left to temporarily stay with his brother in Connecticut. It’s all a lot to handle.
But Rodriguez said that after seeing the storm’s destruction in his hometown of Humacao, he wanted to help. So, on many days, he’d go to a hotel to find Wi-Fi and apply for jobs -- and then, he’d head east.
“[I’d] drive over to Humacao, Yabucoa, Naguabo, all these little towns that are near the east side and the eye came through,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said he is now training for a job with the Small Business Administration where he’ll be working with homeowners and renters impacted by the storm. But when we visited, he was making daily trips to Humacao to deliver supplies and check in on people who were cut off from family members back on the mainland.
Rodriguez took us to the resort community he grew up in -- Las Palmas del Mar. Despite the storm’s damage, life inside the resort seemed to be getting back to normal; we saw a family riding around on a golf cart, a bustling restaurant on the waterfront, and even a woman washing her car in her driveway.
But outside of the walls of the gated community, things were different.
“Since Maria, we haven't had water. There's no water and the [water trucks came] two times. Nothing more,” said Maria Castro, a community leader in Humacao.
She stood on a street corner with a group of neighbors in the afternoon heat. One man shaded an elder with an umbrella.
Castro spoke with urgency. She said they use rainwater to wash, but it’s not enough. And it’s causing all kinds of problems -- making it hard, for instance, for people to bathe their bed-ridden parents.
There’s also a nearby river, but it’s not safe to drink. Rodriguez said he’d try to to connect Castro with a nonprofit on the mainland that wanted to donate water filters.
“I’m going to come back with these filters. I’m waiting on this company to donate 100 buckets of five-gallon-buckets -- and we’re going to filter the creek,” Rodriguez told Castro. A week later -- he came back with a nonprofit to deliver the filters.
Elsewhere in Humacao, there’s been a need for food. Rodriguez took us to one of the town’s highest mountain peaks where a local organization has been serving free meals there to residents facing long lines and limited supply at grocery stores.
Rosalina Abreú has been leading the effort. She said she was standing at a site that was an undisturbed, undeveloped natural forest. It’s here that an annual festival was held under what was a lush forest canopy before the hurricane’s powerful winds tore through the mountainside.
But these nearly barren trees are the new reality, and Abreú said they just have to get used to it.
“The good is that now you can see your neighbor who, before, you couldn't see," Abreú said. "And in that, the community comes together."
WNPR's Jeff Cohen contributed to this report.
This story is part of “The Island Next Door,” WNPR’s reporting project about Puerto Rico and Connecticut after Hurricane Maria.