‘We lost everything but hope’

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Three years after Hurricane Maria, Central Florida survivors count their blessings.

Maria Padilla has co-authored a collection of stories about Hurricane Maria survivors. She attended a three-year anniversary
observance of the disaster blamed for 3,000 deaths on the island of Puerto Rico.

RICARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

BY STEPHEN HUDAK
ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

KISSIMMEE – Gabriel Mejias Ocasio remembered the wrath of Hurricane Maria, which struck in Puerto Rico three years ago.

Thousands dead. Homes obliterated, businesses destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of islanders left without power, many for nearly a year. Over 200,000 islanders eventually fled to the mainland, about 70,000 settling in Florida, Ocasio, 28, among them.

“It’s a very emotional day for our people,” he said of the day Maria struck.

Some said it is a day Puerto Ricans will never forget.

More than a dozen families who survived the storm and now live in Central Florida gathered on Sept. 20 in heavy rain outside the Super 8 Motel in Kissimmee to remember the deadliest natural disaster to strike the U.S. in a century and to honor their own perseverance.

Organize Florida helped

Many who left the island arrived on the mainland with only a backpack of belongings.

“I came here empty-handed,” said Carol Torres, 36, a married mother of two. “We lost everything but hope.”

With the help of Organize Florida, the union that represents workers at Disney parks and Orlando International Airport, the families chose to hold the gathering at the 120-suite motel, where many had lived week-to-week as they struggled to get on their feet again.

In 2018, eight months after the hurricane, 33 relocated families were staying at the mote — one of 20 in the area housing nearly 400 evacuees — with “hotel vouchers” provided by a Federal Emergency Management Agency shelter-assistance program.

“This is not an ‘ay bendito’ (‘woe is me’) story,” the Rev. Jose Rodriguez wrote in an op-ed piece in Sunday’s Orlando Sentinel. “This is a story of resilience, strength, and community.” The vicario of Iglesia Episcopal Jesus de Nazaret in Orlando told stories of some islanders who moved to Central Florida and made better lives not just for themselves but for their new neighbors.

Day of reconnecting

He said at the event on Sept. 20 that reuniting was important for families.

“For some, it’s like reconnecting with the island,” Rodríguez said.

About 70 transplanted families had pledged to attend the afternoon event but hard rain and tropical storm-like winds which at times lifted canopy shelters off the ground may have deterred them, said Cloe Cabrera, an Organize Florida spokeswoman.

But State Reps. Anna Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith, both Orlando Democrats, and Orange County commissioners Emily Bonilla and Maribel Gomez-Cordero braved the weather. Others in attendance called on the island families to raise their voices by voting in November.

Trump’s announcement

President Donald Trump, whose chances for re-election are tied to winning Florida, promised nearly $13 billion in federal disaster funding on Sept. 18 to help Puerto Rico repair its electrical and education infrastructure three years after Maria and six weeks before the presidential election.

Some at the event eyed the announcement’s timing suspiciously.

“We can’t withstand another four years of what we got,” said Frank Rivera, 65, a Navy veteran and retired health inspector.

New York-born, Rivera lived in Puerto Rico from 1962 to 1976 when he enlisted.

He remembered Maria and the anguish he felt waiting to hear from family and friends.

“Not knowing was the worst,” Rivera said.

A niece finally made her way to a hill where she could get a cell signal. He said she texted, “We’re alive & OK.”

‘Tossed to the Wind’

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a high-end Category 4 storm destroying an antiquated power grid which was already unreliable.

“These are amazing people, who came here for a new start and many arrived at Orlando International Airport with just the clothes on their backs,” said Maria Padilla, co-author with Nancy Rosado of a book about Maria survivors, titled “Tossed To The Wind.”

Some eked out a living at places like the Super 8 Motel, but many stayed with family.

Among their favorite vignettes: a 30-year-old man who worked as a server in a restaurant but took in his mother, grandmother, brother and the brother’s children, and they all lived together in an 800-square-foot apartment because they had no other place to go.

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