The winds hit Jenny Cortez’s concrete house in Aguadillo, Puerto Rico, so hard that she had to lean her entire body against the door to hold it shut while mopping up the water seeping in underneath. She told her pregnant daughter, Vivian Gonzalez, 29, to stay in the bedroom with her 2-year-old, Fabiana Nieves.
“I would die trying to hold the door,” recalled Cortez, crying.
Cortez, 47, drew on all of her strength to help her family survive Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2017. She summoned that same strength to survive a month and a half without electricity, or medication for severe depression, until ticket prices came down enough so that she could afford to fly to the South Bronx to stay with her father.
Three days after arriving on the U.S. mainland, Cortez sought help at the New York City Hurricane Relief Center in Harlem. She was one of 2,522 people the center attended to since opening on Oct. 19. In February, the service was moved to HomeBase, a program spread out across different parts of the city.
Cortez is one of many Puerto Ricans navigating a bureaucratic maze after fleeing their storm-ravaged homes. Although she can stay with her father in Mott Haven, others like Sonia Concepción, 64, a former factory worker on the island, has had to move into a local shelter after first staying with a friend.
“They put me on the fourth floor, and I have a knee injury,” said Concepción. After 21 frustrating days in New York, she asked a niece to help her buy a ticket home. In the meantime, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is relocating some refugees of the hurricane to hotels in the metro area.
People displaced by extreme weather events caused by climate change have no legal protections, said Jessica Wentz, an attorney and researcher at the Sabin Center for Climate Law at Columbia University. In contrast, the captains of industry whose businesses, environmental experts argue, are at the root of these catastrophes in the first place, receive every possible break.
“There are actors who are contributing to climate change and profiting from the activities that contribute to [it],” said Wentz. “And there are people who are on the losing side.”
Cortez, who used to work as a personal trainer but retired two years ago after memory lapses and an attempted suicide related to panic attacks and anxiety, made an appointment with a psychiatrist and got a prescription for medicine. Her daughter and granddaughter are now living in Chicago.
But Concepción was not able to fill all of her prescriptions, which contributed to her leaving Puerto Rico.
“My house and my things were destroyed,” said Concepción, adding that she was allowed to see a psychologist in New York, but not a psychiatrist, despite her illness.
Johanna Conroy, a FEMA supervisor in the city, says most of the people her agency deals with ask for help finding jobs, schools and winter clothing.
“We are seeing a lot of elderly people and people with disabilities because we know that their family want to get them here as quickly as possible,” said Conroy. But although government agencies are scrambling to find short term fixes for those whose lives have been decimated by Hurricane Maria, there are no plans in place to help people who will be displaced by future climate-change events.
Adapting to life in the South Bronx is considered the best alternative for some. Cortez recalls the sadness she felt when she viewed the damage in Puerto Rico from the airplane window as she was leaving for the mainland.
“It will take years for the island to be as it was before the hurricane, many years,” she said. “I don’t know if I ever want to come back.”