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Lives Upended: Hurricane Maria Brings Puerto Ricans to Northwest Hillsborough

Adriana Figueroa quietly stood among a group of Sickles high school students who were volunteering for The Great West Chase.

Picking up his race packet, a Spanish-speaking runner was struggling to communicate in English.

That’s when she stepped forward, quickly resolving the issue in fluent Spanish.

“Where did you learn your Spanish?” someone asked.

“I’m from Puerto Rico,” she said.

In fact, she had arrived just two weeks before.

She has that in common with Ricardo Arrillaga. On Aug. 25, Ricardo, 49, celebrated the beginning of a new life when he married his wife, Dafne Courtier, 47, in Puerto Rico. One month later, their new life in San Juan, Puerto Rico was upended.

You’ve likely read about Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico when it made landfall on Sept. 20.

Adriana Figueroa, 17, and her sister, Victoria, 10, lived through it. They, and the Arrillaga clan, are now part of the vast Puerto Rican migration to Florida, which, according to the Governor Rick Scott’s office, has brought over 160,000 new residents to the state in less than two months. “I arrived Oct. 11,” said Adriana. “I left because of Hurricane Maria.”

Adriana Figueroa is one of the bravest young women you could ever meet. A senior in high school who faced losing a year and being unable to go to college on schedule, she instead left her parents and her other sister behind and flew to Tampa.

Victoria and she left because their own school was still without power and water nearly a month after the storm. Adriana now attends Sickles High School while her sister Victoria attends Mary Bryant Elementary.

When the storm hit, Ricardo Arrillaga was practicing law with his brother Rene in a small firm in San Juan. He handled family and civil law. One hurricane and six weeks later, he’s now studying to take the exam to become a Realtor in Tampa.

On Sept. 20, Puerto Rico fell victim to one of the worst natural disasters in its history when Hurricane Maria, an explosive Category 5, dropped slightly in intensity and slammed into the eastern part of the island as a high Category 4 storm.

The Figueroa sisters rode out the storm in the home her mom, Carmen, and step-dad, Omar. “It started around 2 a.m.,” said Adriana, who didn’t sleep during the storm. “You could hear the wind inside the house.”

Through the kitchen window, they could see the family’s 23-foot boat. “It looked like it was going to fly away. We were afraid it was going to tip onto the house.”

Around them trees were crumpling to the ground. Their front yard turned into a lake. “I started getting scared because all the drains got clogged up so all the water was coming in,” she said. “My stepfather had to go out of the house to unclog the pipes. Water just kept coming in.”

Adriana credited the neighborhood’s magotes – small hills that speckle the island – for offering the house some protection from the storm’s wrath.

When the storm passed, she ventured out. “It looked like an atomic bomb fell and destroyed the vegetation. It looked like there had been a forest fire. The trees looked so burned,” she said. Nearly every road was blocked from fallen trees. “Just seeing everything destroyed. That’s what struck me the most.”

At 3,500 square miles, Puerto Rico lies just east of Cuba and Hispaniola, the island home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The island of Puerto Rico has been part of the U.S. since the Spanish-American War in 1898, when the U.S. seized it from Spain. Its 3.4 million residents are U.S. citizens.

A trip east to west takes over two hours by car. Traveling from San Juan in the north to Ponce in the south takes at least an hour. In a few hours Hurricane Maria crossed the island at an angle, passing just south of the island capital of San Juan. The island’s fragile infrastructure, long neglected as Puerto Rico wrestled with crushing debt and bankruptcy over the last decade, crumpled. The electrical and telecommunications grids were utterly destroyed. Water service collapsed. Countless mountain roads disappeared beneath mudslides and fallen trees.

In the days afterward lines formed as Puerto Ricans waited hours for the most basic supplies. Islanders dependent on dialysis, oxygen and cancer treatments died when their clinics and hospitals had no supplies, electricity or fuel for generators. People outside the capital took to bathing in streams and drinking from mountain springs. Life was set back more than a century and the economy ground to a halt.

While the official storm death toll was still under 100, in the weeks that followed the number of Puerto Ricans who died jumped by more than 400 over the typical mortality rate.

Those who remained now faced a daunting financial reality.

“Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico had an economic problem with large debt. And things were not going well for solo practitioners. I had no contracts with any bank or any client,” said Arrillaga. “After Maria, we still, today, have no electricity at the office,” he told WOW on Nov. 5. “The courts have been closed nine weeks. They just opened last Thursday.”

Without power, Arrillaga couldn’t email. He couldn’t even print out a motion to file in the closed courthouse. “I had no salary,” he said.

His wife Dafne was in the same boat given the largely shut-down economy. “My wife was in advertising but who wanted to advertise in Puerto Rico? So we had no money.”

Meanwhile Adriana and Victoria’s school, Piaget Bilingual Academy, a school for just over 700 students in grades K through 8, shuttered its doors. Nearly a month after the storm, it opened experimentally, trying to hold school in buildings with no electricity or water. “I didn’t want to take a chance,” said Adriana “I wanted to finish my senior year.”

When WOW spoke to Figueroa on Nov. 4, Piaget Academy, where her youngest sister still attends, still had no power or water.

A week into November thousands of Puerto Ricans were still homeless. Sixty-two percent of folks on the island still had no electric power. Twenty percent of Puerto Ricans – 680,000 people – still had no access to clean water. Thirty percent of Puerto Ricans were still without phone service more than a month and a half after the storm. And 50 percent of schools were still closed.

Arrillaga cited a friend who works for the government’s labor department. “Right now we have about 40 percent of Puerto Ricans without jobs, so the economy will be very, very tough for the next couple of years.”

In contrast, Figueroa’s stepdad, Omar, found himself with steady work. He has yet to catch a breath because he fixes and maintains cell towers for a living. “He has been working non-stop,” said Adriana.

Yet without phone service, it took nearly a week for Adriana to learn her own father was safe.

Those initial days after the storm were hardest. The Figueroa family rationed use of the generator to a few hours a night to preserve its propane. “I was driving myself nuts because my dad lives near the coast. On the sixth day after the storm, I was able to speak to him just one minute,” she said.

Finally learning he was safe, Adriana ventured out to see her father the next day. “You could see people on bicycles on the highway just getting gas. Just standing in lines. One of my dad’s employees made a 15 hour line for $15 worth of gasoline,” she said.

That’s when her father broke the news to her. “When I first talked to him, my father said, ‘Adriana, I bought you some [plane] tickets. This doesn’t look good.’” Figueroa added, “My first thought was “I don’t want to leave my family behind.’ And I said, ‘No, Dad! No, Dad!’ I didn’t want to leave my family in times like this.”

“But a week later the topic rose again,” said Adriana. “I did a pro and con list and I thought it was better for me to come here.”

Adriana landed in Tampa on Oct. 10 with her stepmother and her sister, who rented a small apartment. Because the apartment lacked room for her, Adriana now lives with her aunt and uncle, Bonnie and Angel Rivera, in Hampton Lakes. She goes back and forth, trying to support Victoria, who begs her to stay in the small apartment. “She has made friends. I worried this wasn’t going to be easier,” Adriana said. “I think she’s doing pretty good under the circumstances.”

“We flew to Tampa for just 10 days as a short vacation,” said Arrillaga. Seeking a brief respite from the storm’s impact, his wife and he came to visit his brother, Joaquin, a current member of the Westchase Community Association (WCA) Board of Directors. It was a reunion of sorts as Ricardo’s son, Gabriel, 21, was already living with Joaquin’s family and attending the University of South Florida (USF).

Once in Tampa, Arrillaga found it a challenge to get back home. Jet Blue cancelled their initial return trip, postponing it a week. “A close friend of mine offered a job for Dafne and I returned to Puerto Rico,” he said. Once there, he encountered a dispiriting situation. “I found the same scene that I left. There were still cables on the ground and no electricity,” he said. “And I decided, ‘Let me return to Tampa.’”

He paused. “I will begin tomorrow at real estate classes to work with Joaquin,” he said. “Joaquin has a real estate office and he wants me to join him.”

To practice law here, Arrillaga would have to pass the Florida Bar exam. “The law that I know in Puerto Rico doesn’t apply here in Florida. I need to study about a year and I’m not in that position right now,” he said.

His daughter, Marielena, 19, will soon join Dafne and him in Tampa. A student at a Puerto Rican university, she has 30 credit hours, but can’t transfer into USF without either taking the SAT or earning another 30 credit hours. She’ll begin classes at Hillsborough Community College in January to gain the needed credits.

All Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland are faced with a dramatic transition from an island where the majority speak Spanish and live lives that would be more familiar to many in Latin America than to folks in Florida.

Figueroa stays positive, however. “It has been easy in some ways for me to adapt.”

She acknowledged she’s lucky to live with relatives. “But at night I start thinking about my family. It’s not easy leaving them in times like these. I wish they could come but they have to stay over there.”

Arrillaga also consider himself one of the lucky ones. He could afford to make the move. “I have an empty room here and my son already lives with Joaquin. That made my decision easier,” he said. “I began my routine with a borrowed room and a borrowed car and I could start looking for a job.”

He added, “I’ll be thankful to Joaquin my entire life.”

What’s been the hardest part of the transition?

“Leaving my island. Leaving my daughter. My family. I left everything. I came here with my clothes. I’m really beginning again,” he said.

Figueroa’s transition to Sickles from her much smaller Puerto Rican school has also been a bit jarring. “In Sickles in my graduating class there are 1,200 students. I am not used to being in such a big school.”

“Being in such a big place, that’s what’s shocked me the most,” she said. She adds, however, that she feels safe there. “It’s just hard for me because I only have one friend at school because I’ve only been there three weeks.”

In the meantime, she continues to work hard to make her dream of college come true, allowing her to follow in the footsteps of her parents, who both finished at Puerto Rican colleges. “I’ve always wanted to go to college,” she said. “I’m still undecided but I’m still going to apply to a couple here in Florida and a couple in New England.”

She added, “I want to study law.”

In seven years, where will she call home?

“That’s a really difficult question. Home will always be Puerto Rico no matter how bad it may be. It will always be the place where I grew up.”

When asked if he plans a return to the island he has always called home, Arrillaga cited the long recovery his island faces. “In the short-term, I don’t think I’ll be back to Puerto Rico.”

But Adriana Figueroa pauses when she’s asked if she sees herself returning to the island after graduation after law school. She too is aware of the island’s current economic struggles. She even voices her own concerns about crime on the island.

“My parents have always told me not to get stuck in a place and always travel,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to live in Europe.”

She reminisced about a European vacation that left her wanting to live in Denmark someday. Yet her new life in Florida has made her less certain. “I thought I wasn’t that attached to my mom,” she said. “But it turns out, I really am.”

For now, while relatives and friends rebuild back in the island, the Arrillagas and Figueroas are building new lives for themselves.

Twelve hundred miles away.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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