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The devastation from Hurricane Maria cost many lives

Luisa Roque in the kitchen of her home in Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in September, 2017. Her mother, who suffered from lung disease, passed away two months after the storm. Photo:Marel Malaret

When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, the trail of destruction stretched across the island and halted essential services, such as power and water, for months. The aftermath was arduous, and deadly. On August 28, the Puerto Rican government changed the official death count from 64 to 2,975. The story here is just one of thousands, and conveys just a sliver of the loss and pain from the storm.

A day doesn’t go by without Luisa Roque going over the details of everything that happened during the weeks after Hurricane Maria hit her community in Puerto Rico. All the “what ifs...” and endless questions are constantly hammering in her head. It’s still very difficult for her to talk about the devastating days that led up to the death of her mother, Eduviges, who suffered from pulmonary fibrosis (chronic lung disease).

One day, she reports, “I heard her move around the house in the early morning hours. Worried, I got up and went to her room. She was sitting on the bed trying to lie down but she had no strength left. I went to hold her and said, ‘We’re going to the emergency room right now.’ She looked at me and whispered, ‘I can’t.’ My husband helped me stretch her on the bed. Then I heard her last breath and she was gone. I wailed and wailed so loud the whole neighborhood heard me.”

Eduviges, a retired teacher, taught for a while in a school building with asbestos. Until Hurricane Maria, she was an active woman who took care of herself and managed her disease. She took her medication, slept connected to an oxygen concentrator, and gave herself respiratory therapy during the day.

However, the storm changed everything. Eduviges lived with her daughter, Luisa (a jewelry designer) in a small house partially made of wood. Hurricane Maria blew out the whole front of Luisa’s house and flooded everything. The house, like every house on the island, had no water, no electricity, and no phone connectivity. While Luisa had moved her mother to a relative’s house during the storm, her mother insisted on moving back one week after the hurricane. It’s where she wanted to be.

Then the nightmare started. To enable Eduviges to give herself respiratory therapy once in a while, Luisa asked a neighbor to connect an extension cord to their small generator (although she never connected the oxygen concentrator at night). Since people with pulmonary fibrosis are at extreme risk to any infectious disease or any bacteria, Luisa was constantly trying to disinfect every corner of the house. Still, more days of heavy rainfall would come, and the house would flood again and again. Her mother insisted on helping get the water out.

Soon, Eduviges’s health began to deteriorate. On various occasions, Luisa took her mother to the doctor who had always treated her; however, he was enduring difficult conditions as well, and all he could do was prescribe antibiotics. He didn’t want her to go anywhere near an emergency room, as it was the most dangerous place for her in the present circumstances. Electricity in most emergency rooms and clinics was not reliable. The rooms were full, the waits were long, and trying to disinfect was a constant challenge – meaning she could have been exposed to disease, bacteria, dust, and mold.

Luisa knew her mother was getting worse, and felt the guilt of impotence. Every time she needed to make a call, she had to drive out of her neighborhood to try to get connectivity. It was scary. What if she needed to call 911, an ambulance, or someone to come help her?

Luisa’s mother died on November 22, 2017, roughly two months after Hurricane Maria. Her death is just one of many considered by different studies as a direct consequence of the storm’s aftermath.

To this day, Luisa ponders questions to which she knows there are no answers. What else could she have done to help her mother without electricity and access to proper care? Could Eduviges have enjoyed more years of life with her family under different circumstances? Is the hurricane the only factor to blame?

These questions haunt Luisa, and hang over an island still reeling and still on a long road to recovery.

Oxfam is supporting local efforts to meet Puerto Ricans' most urgent needs in this disaster.

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