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A Year Later, Puerto Ricans Face Death In The Wake Of Maria05:02
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A house in Guaynabo, which was completely leveled by Hurricane Maria, still sits in ruin one year after the storm. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A house in Guaynabo, which was completely leveled by Hurricane Maria, still sits in ruin one year after the storm. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Este reporte tambien está disponible en español.

Candido Reyes and Luz María Muñiz found love late in life — she in her 50s, he in his 60s — but at least they had found what some people never find. He told her he loved her more than God, and he believed it to the point that he apologized for it in his prayers.

“[My stepfather] spent so much time telling people about how in love he was,” said Debora Perez, a Stoneham resident whose mother lives in the town of Sabana Seca, in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. "He kept telling people at church and strangers."

Debbie Perez (Courtesy)
Debbie Perez (Courtesy)

When Hurricane Maria hit — a year ago Thursday — Perez said she was desperate to know how her mother was doing, but cell service was nil.

"Once the reports started coming in about like flooding in Toa Baja, where my mom and my grandma are, that's when the real terror hits you,” she said.

“[Media reports] are talking about drownings, they're talking about people who have been caught up in mudslides. And so you start to really fear that something will happen to your family — or something has happened."

A week passed before Perez got word that everyone was OK, but months passed before electricity was restored in Toa Baja. Candido Reyes and Luz María Muñiz survived the storm, but the worst was yet to come.

People across the 135-mile-long island say the wake of Hurricane María is the hardest thing they’ve ever dealt with — it meant life without electricity for months on end. For the elderly and infirm — people whose health care depends on stable electricity — the hurricane was a death sentence.

For Candido Reyes, the man who loved his wife more than he loved God, the months after the storm were too much for his heart.

"Walking for miles was not really something that he was supposed to be doing."

Debora Perez

“The fact that they had to search for food and water, or they had to depend on neighbors ... that caused a lot of anxiety and stress on his heart,” Perez said of her stepfather. “Walking for miles was not really something that he was supposed to be doing."

Three months after the storm, Candido Reyes died of heart failure.

Counting The Dead

The death count from a natural disaster isn’t normally subject to controversy, but Puerto Rico is unique.

For months after the hurricane, the Puerto Rican government insisted only 64 people had been killed in the storm. President Trump said when he first visited the island that María wasn’t a “real catastrophe like Katrina.”

But people on the ground thought differently. The Puerto Rican Center for Investigative Journalism led the charge. In collaboration with Quartz and the Associated Press, journalists interviewed the families of 300 people who died in the wake of María, and reviewed the testimonies of 200 more.

Journalists determined that by Oct. 1, nearly two weeks after the storm hit, 152 people had died, many because of the lack of electricity.

It wasn't until August 2018 that the Puerto Rican government changed the official estimated death toll from 64 to 2,975.

Coping With The Aftereffects

Some Puerto Ricans cope with death by means of art. One of them is Pedro Adorno, for 25 years the head of Agua, Sol y Sereno, a community theater collective in San Juan. The troupe traveled all around Puerto Rico in the weeks and months after the storm, bringing their puppets to the people, and Adorno says it soon became clear that the true extent of the devastation wasn’t being told.

Pedro Adorno, front, and a portion of his Agua, Sol, y Sereno theater company rehearse a portion of their show,"Corazón de Papel: A Hurricane Story," a portrayal of the post-Maria disaster. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Pedro Adorno, front, and a portion of his Agua, Sol, y Sereno theater company rehearse a portion of their show,"Corazón de Papel: A Hurricane Story," a portrayal of the post-Maria disaster. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"All of us got this strong feeling: ‘Something is wrong,’ ” he said. "They say it's only 16 [who] people died in this hurricane. This is not possible.

"We knew a lot of hospitals were without electricity, people who [weren’t getting] cancer treatment, people who had kidney problems — we knew, we felt that, but [the government] denied the information."

This week, as WBUR is back in Puerto Rico, we drove to Sabana Seca to find Luz María Muñiz. The night before she'd told us she’d be glad to receive us, though she wasn’t answering the phone in the morning.

The first people we saw in the town offered to help find the house. They told us about their own devastation and said the majority of people had left the town, either for the mainland or for other parts of Puerto Rico.

We could feel their absence in the air, despite the hum of power tools and staccato of fighting roosters. Sabana Seca felt somehow quieter than it should.

Resident Marta María Hernandez said life isn’t the same with so many people gone. She said people used to walk their dogs and say hi to one another. Now everything is quiet and nobody leaves their house.

Finally we found the house. We rapped on the steel gate — “Mariiiiia!” Hernandez’s son shouts — but no one answered.

In the sweltering heat the next-door neighbor, Juana Alicea, offered us cold orange juice on her patio. She recalls hearing the cries from the house next door that Candido Reyes had died. She said she rushed in the direction of the cries, and when she saw Candido Reyes, he was lying on the floor, taking his final breaths.

Juana Alicea pours cups of orange juice to Indiana Medina and 3-year-old Kendra as they were walking past her house on a hot day in Toa Baja. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Juana Alicea pours cups of orange juice to Indiana Medina and 3-year-old Kendra as they were walking past her house on a hot day in Toa Baja. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

She brushed her hands over his eyelids and told Luz María not to worry — her husband wasn't suffering anymore.

I texted Muñiz’s daughter, Perez, back home, and she’d finally heard from her mother.

"She said she's been in bed,” Perez wrote back. "Doesn't want to get up. Very depressed. Thinking a lot about my stepdad. I cheered her a bit but she's having a tough time today."

We left Toa Baja and hoped Muñiz would talk to us when she was feeling better, but she never picked up the phone again.

Death is something many Puerto Ricans have been forced to confront in the dark wake of Maria, whether at the side of their loved ones, or more recently, at the assertion that the death count is a fiction designed to malign the president.

Perez describes the events as her calling to become an activist. She started a podcast about Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, and after being born and raised on the mainland, she considered moving to the island for the first time.

When her stepfather died, Perez decided she’s definitely moving to Puerto Rico: “It's a spiritual journey for me, because I'm able to go back and connect to my culture and my people, and find ways to help on the ground."

Puerto Rico lost thousands in the wake of the storm, but the island will gain at least one with the arrival of people like Debbie Perez.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the official death toll was, for a time, at 62, not 64. We regret the typo. 

This segment aired on September 20, 2018.

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Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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