“Are you from FEMA?”
Our colleague Márel Malaret has been following community leaders as they assess the needs of residents in the storm-ravaged Playita neighborhood of San Juan. Here’s her report on the conditions in Playita and the question on everybody’s mind.
Márel Malaret teaches the history of film and documentary filmmaking on the faculty of Escuela de Comunicación, at Puerto Rico’s University of the Sacred Heart.
As we walked around Playita, one of the poorest marginal communities in San Juan, with community leaders Cecilia Collazo and Carmen Villanueva, people approached to ask if we were from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They are desperate.
Cecilia Collazo is trying her best to map the number of destroyed homes and missing roofs. It is a project she started on her own. She also organizes the community when aid, food, or water arrives. Even without electricity, no internet, and little cell phone connectivity, she is working relentlessly to get her community what it needs. According to her, FEMA came by and assessed some of the damage. They have not returned.
Playita is located at the end of the Villa Palmeras area, by a water treatment plant and the shore of the San José Lagoon. Most of these communities were formed in areas where mangroves once grew very close to the sea. So when Hurricane Maria struck, it left Playita destroyed and flooded, and totally inaccessible. Many houses close to the water treatment plant are flooded with contaminated water.
A few days after Maria, when people had started trying to clean up the waste and save their belongings, the area was struck by a brief tornado with no previous warning.
Lydia Santiago Figuera showed us the damage to the homes where she and her relatives live. In Playita, it is not uncommon for neighbors to be related. Many people build houses next to their parents or siblings.
Griselle Rodríguez Romero, a former nursing student, lost her house completely. “Someone from FEMA came and told me to not go in the house because it’s dangerous,” she said. She is living with her mother and brothers nearby.
Isaías Feliz Martínez lives in a place called Luis Llorens Torres, on the opposite side of the freeway from Playita. He recalls seeing a large white cloth hanging from the pedestrian bridge on which some residents of Playita had written: “SOS. PLAYITA NEEDS WATER AND FOOD. SOS.”
Martínez is a chef. He has been collecting rice, beans, and anything else he could from his neighbors, and cooking meals for the community. He brings free meals to Playita every day. “I just started going from door to door in my neighborhood,” he says. “A bag of rice here, an onion there, and we started cooking.”
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