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 the Humacao and Punta Santiago area, where Hurricane Maria destroyed many homes and displaced hundreds. Students are documenting the community that stayed to rebuild. 

Student Essay: Memories of a coastal town

Only the waves could be seen through the windows. The wall in the back room cracked and the water began to enter. Jose Aponte Cruz, better known as “Shewy,” moved his wife and daughter up to higher elevation to protect them from the sea that was taking up more and more space inside their home. In the midst of the terror, his son said to him, “Daddy, we have to get out.”

“Thank God that so much water fell that all the tears I was shedding were not noticed,” he said, crying as he remembered Hurricane Maria.

While the rest of Puerto Ricans were preparing for the impact of the most violent phenomenon in recent years, the towns in the southeast were the first to receive the vicious cyclone. Shewy resides in Punta Santiago, a community located on the coast of Humacao that felt the first whips of the storm. To the Humacaeños’ surprise, the sea extended into their homes. Places that were not flooded before received up to five feet of water, causing the residents to lose all their belongings.

Shewy also lost his fried food business located on Punta Santiago beach. Now, the merchant works in construction and on Sundays, he positions himself next to the remains of Kiosko El Amarillo, his previous location, and sells his cod under a tent. “I don’t want to leave Puerto Rico. I’m from here like the coquí (the Puerto Rican tree frog), and I want to get up here,” he said.

Another Humacaeña who did not leave her home was Carmen M. Torres Rivera, 56, who was forced to evacuate when the water reached her chest. “If I hadn’t put on a life vest, I would have drowned,” recalled the fisherwoman, who lost her car and until a few weeks ago, slept on a wet mattress.

The fishing community were badly affected after Maria. “Fishing has been limited. What appears are lobsters, but the fishing of different species has decreased. What used to be 75% is no longer even 20%,” said Antonio Torres. the president of the Association of Fishermen of Humacao.

Fabián Rosa Díaz, a fisherman and diver for more than 30 years, passed six months without being able to fish. Since then, it has not been the same. “A year after the hurricane, fishing is regular, not good. All those corals went with Maria,” he explained when he returned from the sea. The water also entered Fabián’s home, so he lost everything from his belongings to his vehicle.

The ravages in Humacao are not only seen in the deterioration of the fishing pier, but also on the water marks on the walls and the stories on each street. By entering some homes, you can get to know the reality of several Puerto Ricans who still do not have basic services.

More than a year later, Luz María Cruz Espinosa, 58, has been in the dark since the house’s electrical system has been severely affected and she doesn’t have the money to fix it. Her neighbors and the community bakery allow her to store cold food in their refrigerators. Luz has an electric generator in her living room that she sometimes uses to charge the phone battery and to wash clothes. The high cost of gasoline does not allow her to use it every day. To be more than a year without light, “it is difficult not to light up with candles, because they are a danger, but I light up with a flashlight,” she stressed.

Even so, all the interviewees have a common characteristic: resilience, or the ability to overcome traumatic circumstances. “We’ve been recovering. We have been getting up little by little. The struggle has not been easy, but with God ahead of us,” said Luz with a smile.

A year later, the community that had been forced to spray “SOS we need water/food” on the asphalt has replaced that message with another: “Welcome.”