Carmen’s home sits opposite an intersection in a crowded part of Canovanas, where all around are houses in various states of repair, disrepair, and vacancy since Hurricane Maria. When we arrive to speak with her, she yells in Spanish over lively music emanating from her property that she “feels shitty” because her back hurts so she isn’t sure she’s up to talking to us today.
But when Hilda Vlachopoulou asks if we can get her anything or give her a ride to a doctor, Carmen tells us no and to give her a few minutes to freshen up and to return. (Carmen does not drive nor does she have a phone.) So we drive the twisty roads of the hilly neighborhood, past abandoned cars with shattered windows and windshields, crumbling concrete structures behind metal fences and a few homes that are intact and brightly painted and appear they never met a hurricane called Maria. Vlachopoulou points out houses sporting distinctively shaped new roofs dotting the hillside. “We did that one,” she said, “And that one.” And then tells us an anecdote about a homeowner, including one woman who when she spies Vlachopoulou’s car driving the streets below her house texts “I love you” to Hilda.
Occasionally as we meander our way through the twists and turns, someone calls to us, or runs alongside the car and we stop to chat. The Team Rubicon Jeep and Vlachopoulou have become a welcome presence, and in many ways the people have expressed their gratitude for TR’s help and their new roofs by treating Vlachopoulou like family.
At another house on a corner, a TR-funded construction team is busy re-roofing a house. The guys on the ground are sawing wood and sport TR shirts or hats. They yell greetings and provide an updated timeline. The roof should be done by tomorrow. Vlachopoulou explains that each roof takes approximately two and a half days unless they need to stop because of rain. TR is funding four contractors who have between eight and 12 teams each who are re-roofing and building in 22 locations on Puerto Rico.
When we return to Carmen’s, she grants us access through her heavy, rolling metal gate that padlocks from the inside. The gate and fence keep her, her 9-year-old granddaughter Catherine (whom she calls Naomi) and three-month-old puppy Kiki safe and also helps corral the ducks that roam freely around the yard. Carmen greets us by kissing our cheeks and explains that Naomi isn’t in school today because Carmen’s back hurt too much to walk her there. Vlachopoulou volunteers to take her but Carmen said too much of the day has already passed to bother, so the girl spends most of our visit at the kitchen table vacillating between watching what appears to be a soap opera on TV and us.
Carmen, though complaining about the pain, seems excited to see us, and wants us to go outside with her to see something. She takes us to banana trees in front of her house and points to the dozen or more three-to-four inch long caterpillars crawling up and down the leaves. She explains in Spanish that before Hurricane Maria, Naomi’s class grew caterpillars and watched them molt and then be reborn as butterflies, but the hurricane destroyed all of them so she was helping them start the project again. In addition to the caterpillars crawling in the front yard, a few are also housed in a glass cup with a makeshift lid that sits on the kitchen table next to Naomi as she watches TV.
Overhead, the plywood from the new roof serves as the ceiling in all three rooms of the house. And explains that the case manager, who determines which families meet the needs criteria for TR’s roofs, provided Carmen’s home with a few windows and a door through his NGO, the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
We interviewed Carmen on the bottom bunk in hers and Naomi’s bedroom, since it is the only place we can all sit and where there was room to set up the video camera on its tripod. Naomi pokes her head in the door a couple of times to see what is going on, but she shakes her head causing her shiny black braids to bob no when asked if she wants to answer any questions about the hurricane or anything else.
Carmen tells us how grateful she is to Team Rubicon, and she starts to cry. For 25 years she has lived in this home, with her now-late husband, her children, and her grandchildren, the youngest of which is Naomi whom she is now raising. She calls the home “my biggest refuge and my shelter, and what God has left me.” She said Maria took most of her home’s roof and did interior and other damage and that she “asked God for help and right after Hilda came for the first time and saw the house.”
“I’m extremely thankful to God for sending TR and Hilda and for my new roof,” she said, still wiping tears. After Maria, Carmen’s house was unlivable so she stayed on the second floor of her sister’s house. Carmen explained that while there, she fell down the stairs, and that was the second time she had fallen. (An MRI in New Jersey years earlier indicated a pinched nerve and a problem in her spine.)
After staying at her sister’s, Carmen returned to her own house but it was still unlivable so she and Naomi went to live with Carmen’s mother, who was having health issues of her own and ended up having two surgeries while Carmen was with her for at least 33 days.
“Overall, I was out of my house for four to five months,” Carmen said. She credits Team Rubicon with making it possible for her to return to the home she loves so much.
After the interview, Carmen takes us outside to show us Naomi’s fluffy white rabbit in an elevated wire cage and some chickens. She said when she gets a bit of money, she would be love enclose the space as a way to provide them with more room.
As she walks us to the front of the house again, her hand goes to her back and she winces in pain. Vlachopoulou inquires again if she doesn’t need a ride to the doctor, and Carmen says the Puerto Rican doctors tell her nothing is wrong and just give her Motrin. She thinks she needs another MRI. Vlachopoulou leaves her cell phone number with Carmen, telling her to use the neighbor’s phone to call her if she changes her mind.
And as we are leaving, Carmen’s daughter-in-law arrives, and Carmen explains that though it is one year after Hurricane Maria, there is still no roof on the daughter-in-law’s house so that she and her seven kids cannot live there. Vlachopoulou agrees to follow the daughter-in-law home to a pre-assessment for the caseworker, and once again Carmen remarks how TR is an answer to her prayers.