In October 2018, 20 students worked with Internews and National Geographic Photo Camp to create photo stories and essays from four locations in Puerto Rico, a little more than a year after Hurricane Maria.

This work examines San Juan’s Caño Martín Peña neighborhood, documenting the systemic struggles the community, located along a polluted canal that flooded the area during the hurricane, has faced for decades. 

Student Essay: An extraordinary force
The eight sectors of Caño Martín Peña join together to raise the community

The storm shook with its furious blows to each sector of the Caño Martín Peña area in San Juan. Anguish took hold of the residents that night on September 20, 2017, who mostly evacuated from homes where they had lived since childhood.

“It was no secret that the houses of the Caño were prone to be flooded destroyed by that animal that was furious,” said Maria Victoria Castro, referring to the hurricane and the stream that sent water spilling into the streets.

Many like Castro, president of the Buena Vista Santurce community, decided to take refuge during the natural phenomenon in the homes of relatives outside of the inundation area.

The inhabitants of this community associate the word rain with flood waters contaminated by all kinds of garbage and even human waste. Nayda Bobonis, resident of the Buena Vista Hato Rey community, said although flooding is common, “we knew that for Maria, it was going to be worse.”

Up to three feet of water from the overflow of the drainage pipe entered the residences, because wastes of all kinds do not allow the course of the water to flow naturally. Long before Maria, residents were crying out to the government of Puerto Rico to drain the pipe to save the creek, the area’s precious natural resource.

“We are the ones who clean the sewers here,” Ramón Cintrón Rivera said, who lost his home to heavy rains and uncontrollable hurricane winds. Cintron said that the inhabitants of Caño Martín Peña have always been very united in a common mission. In 2004 they created the project G-8 Inc. Caño Martín Peña, with the vision to “develop, maintain and strengthen the eight communities close to the Caño Martín Peña.”

This project resulted in the creation of the Caño Martín Peña Corporation of the ENLACE Project with the firm purpose of “coordinating and implementing the public policy regarding the rehabilitation of natural wealth.”

Many families close to the six-kilometer-long body of water lost their homes due to the floods caused by the overflowing of the body of water and homes not build to stand up to extreme hurricane force winds that Maria brought.

“The houses built with cement and second floor served as shelters for the homeless,” emphasized an inhabitant who walked the streets of the neighborhood. The numerous external aid received by G-8 Inc. after the cyclone is aimed at the construction of wooden roofs to some of the homes that had lost theirs.

Although there’s not yet enough money to reconstruct every house, Aileen Morales, G-8 Secretary and ENLACE’s administrative assistant, said that with the help of five builders, 58 roofs have been built, with a goal to help the remaining homeowners.

Cintrón Rivera is one of the lucky ones and has already built his roof but he he still has to stay in his daughter’s house because the floor of his home is still collapsed. “I am rebuilding the apartment, said Cintrón Rivera enthusiastically, who said he missed his wife, who is in the United States in cancer treatment, but is focused on having the work done before she returns.

Although, he has not received any help to rebuild the floor of his home where he has lived his entire life he said he is very grateful for all the support that each of his neighbors have given him, from cleaning and to removing rubble.

On the other side of the pipe, Castro recalled finding her house without a roof. She said that she tried to clean up the roofless house, because she had lived a large part of her life there and loved living there. But even though she tried, she can no longer live there because of an allergy that developed from asbestos.

“Although it hurts me to lose my home, I am happy for the union that the community has always shown,” said Castro, who, decided with her husband to open a community center, where members of the community gather to share the concerns they are dealing with, among them the post-Maria psychological traumas that a large part of the inhabitants were living.

Carmen Galarza Aponte, affectionately called “Tita” by her neighbors, standing in her living room, said her neighboring home was destroyed by Hurricane George in 1998. When Maria struck, the house she was standing in while talking to us was severely damaged. Tita said she could not receive any government help for the reconstruction of her house because the deeds are in her deceased in-laws’ names. But this has not stopped Carmen and her daughter; on the contrary, it has encouraged them to work and collect funds to finish rebuilding the house that was destroyed by George.

In the Caño Martín Peña community, the link between each resident has always been evident, and once again it was demonstrated as the residents of the eight sectors act like a family. It is an outstanding community for giving the best face before the storm and that didn’t change after Maria.

Electric power was missing for six months, but the light that has always characterized the community was and is present at all times. Problems, problems and problems, but there will always be more solution; the important thing is to look for them together. As an old and well-known phrase says: “union makes strength.”