Valerie Sauers of Elma had been planning a vacation in Puerto Rico for some time, a chance to visit her boyfriend who lives there.
Hurricane Maria interrupted those plans, but she went anyway. Instead of a relaxing stay on the Caribbean island, though, she found herself helping in the relief efforts, cleaning buildings and taking meals to elderly residents of nursing homes.
A photographer by training, Sauers documented her 12-day stay, which began two weeks after the hurricane ripped through the island.
“I was supposed to go about a week before Hurricane Maria hit and my flight got canceled,” said Sauers, 32.
During her trip, she spent most of her time in the capital city of San Juan, “partly because I didn’t have my own vehicle and partly because there’s just a lot of access that still is not available to certain parts” of the island, she said.
People living in the more remote parts of Puerto Rico are still struggling with deprivation of even the most basic necessities. The residents of San Juan are better off, but still doing without a lot of the basics, Sauers said.
“A lot of the time I was there, we did not have any sort of electricity or power. Sometimes we didn’t even have running water, and the water that we did have we had to treat,” she said.
“When I was there, it was at least two weeks after the hurricane and they were still finding people that were stuck in the homes and didn’t have access to clean water or food,” Sauers said.
Road traffic in and out of San Juan had picked up by the time she arrived.
“Before that, it was so difficult to get gas. So hardly anybody was driving anywhere,” said Sauers, who looked for examples of people trying to move on with their lives.
“I would go out to some places or walk on the street and see some women dress up, with full makeup on and heels like they were going out. Only an hour or two’s drive away, there were people who didn’t have any sort of water or food,” she said.
Things were tougher in Caguas, a city south of San Juan.
Sauers traveled there to help a pastor friend who runs a community center and had organized an effort to bring supplies to those living in more remote parts of the island.
“I worked with him for a couple of days at the center. I had just finished mopping the floors and I was going to get ready to cook dinner for a group of doctors who are volunteering in different areas,” Sauers recalled. “Someone came in yelling, ‘Get out, Get out,’ because the flood water had started coming in. So we had to leave, and I was standing in the middle of the street, with water up to my knees rushing past me.”
Flash floods were common because of the heavy rains following Hurricane Maria, she said.
“The flash flood that happened while I was there was due to the fact that there were a lot of downed trees and debris that were clogging up the bridge where the river is, which is about 100 or 150 feet from the road. So all of the water couldn’t get into the river and started coming down the road,” she said.
Sauers said she worked with an organization that visited nursing homes and not only brought meals to the residents, but also provided entertainment. One performer was Iris Chacon, a Puerto Rican dancer and singer who, for 40 years, has been an internationally renowned icon in the Spanish-speaking world.
“It was actually really, really rewarding to see these elderly people enjoying this,” she said.
“They were very excited and getting energized and they were singing,” she said. “Some of them were brought to tears when they singing “Mi Viejo San Juan,” which means “My Old San Juan,” a very classic Puerto Rican song.”
In previous trips, Sauers said, she was enchanted by San Juan’s vibrant night life – which was nonexistent on her last trip because only 10 percent of the island’s population had electrical power two weeks after the hurricane.
“You have to wait at least an hour or two to get into the grocery stores. If you don’t have any gas or fire to cook with, you can’t even cook. We were fortunate, because we did have a propane gas stove we were able to use for the part of the time I was there,” Sauers said.
Story topics: Puerto Rico