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A Small Puerto Rico Town's Makeshift Relief Center


Although FEMA and local officials are pushing hard on the message that the government is ready with plans and supplies in the event of another major storm, they are also encouraging local citizens to take matters into their own hands. We found people who got that message long ago and not necessarily because they wanted to.

MARIA LABOY: Here are beans - lots of beans, white beans. This is steak and rice and macaroni salad. We have a little bit of everything.

MARTIN: That is Maria Laboy. She's part of the Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo Mariana - basically, a community kitchen and self-help group where neighbors can get a hot meal and, if they need it, company and encouragement. They started serving free meals just a couple of weeks after Hurricane Maria.

LABOY: (Unintelligible) after Maria, we cooked for 300, sometimes from 300 to 400. Everybody came - gets everything every day.

MARTIN: That's 300 to 400 meals a day for the community located at the top of the small mountain village of Mariana.

CHRISTINE NIEVES: Michel, nice to meet you. Welcome to La Loma and Mariana.

MARTIN: Christine Nieves and her partner, Luis Rodriguez Sanchez, linked up with an existing community center to, in essence, start running an impromptu disaster relief program.

NIEVES: It was a mutual aid idea. The Apoyo Mutuo was that - it was not only giving away free food, but it was also inviting people, no matter their age, to be able to contribute whatever they could in return and this sense of we can be part of our own solution.

MARTIN: Christine was born in Ponce, a large city in the south of the island. She'd moved back from the mainland and had moved to Luis's hometown of Mariana before the storm. She told us when she and Luis started taking stock of conditions in the neighborhood after the storm, they realized they had to do something.

NIEVES: We realized our neighbors are eating rotting ham. Like, that's what they - we found out that day - that they were eating ham - like, sandwich meat - that had been unrefrigerated.

MARTIN: So the first thing they did was organize free meals out of the community center kitchen. Then they found a way to provide Wi-Fi for the neighborhood, then water. They've checked on elderly neighbors and delivered meals. Now they're helping to restore an abandoned school to turn it into a sturdier community center where more services can be offered. These types of community groups are popping up all over Puerto Rico.

NIEVES: The idea was to build a space where you could feel that you weren't helpless. Because the days after, nothing - we didn't see anyone. We didn't hear helicopters. There was no water. The power lines were down. People were stuck at home because they didn't want to spend the little gas they had.

MARTIN: How long after the hurricane before anybody showed up?

NIEVES: It was 12 days before we saw a truck that had a little packet of Nutri-Grain, Vienna sausages and - what was the other thing? - Skittles, and then six 16-ounce bottles of water per family.

MARTIN: So how is everything being run here now? Is it still the same? Is it still all volunteer, or do you get any formal help from FEMA or any of the government agencies? Do they provide any supplies?

NIEVES: You know, we would love to hear from FEMA and government, and we would love to hear a good job doing our job, making our job easier because it really feels that we're running a mini-government here. Not yet. We - the answer is, we haven't received any formal - this is all individuals, individual donors, people that are, like, I'm giving you what I have.

The most difficult part of this is that, while we're working towards solutions, we're the same people that are being affected by the problems that we're trying to solve. So we don't have skylights in our home. We don't have water many days of the week. We don't have electricity.

And part of the thing that's most difficult is that people have forgotten that we're still living in an emergency - that I still get people from the diaspora, Puerto Ricans telling me, can you check my aunt? She's deaf. She doesn't have electricity. She cannot, you know, turn on a generator. And we're probably going to see a lot of people sadly pass away because of this because this still goes on.

And, frankly, the other part is that - and perhaps the most important part is that we are getting ready for another natural disaster. And I don't know if this is PTSD, but we're - like, we, like, feel it in our bones that we're on a - we're running against the clock, and we're just, like, how are we going to get the radios here and the community leaders across and decentralize the supply so that they're easier to deploy? And how are we going to do a completely different system than whatever the government has?

MARTIN: Well, FEMA - we went to the FEMA warehouse in San Juan, and they were very aggressive about their message that they are ready and that they have enough and that they are in touch with the communities so that they have a plan. Do you think that message is being received here?

NIEVES: I don't think so. I would say that the people that are - that feel ready are because they feel ready because they're part of a community project, because they know that we have each other. But no, that message is not getting here. So it's draining.

Frankly, our mental health sometimes falters as well. And that's really hard. You know, I wish we had more of - a more robust way of dealing with the mental health component. But, culturally, it's a challenge because an older generation may not want - they don't necessarily want to say that they need a psychologist.

But I burned out in November. Like, even while I'm in the middle of the most hopeful thing you could do because you see people show up every day - these women are showing up everyday. No one's telling them to. They decided. The reason why that kitchen's open is because they opened it up, because they felt that they needed it for their mental health. They said, if I go home, I'm going to get depressed, and I'm going to have suicidal thoughts because there's no - you know. And so they opened it, and so now we're like, all right. We've got to figure out a business model to sustain this (laughter).

MARTIN: What you can hear in Christine's voice is the energy and determination that got her and her neighbors this far. But what you can't see is her eyes filling up with tears, which is something that happened over and over again when we talked to people this week as they remembered the terrifying experience of living through the storm and all they've been through since and thought about what might be coming next. We'll talk more about that in a few minutes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.