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One year after Hurricane Maria, survivors call Chicago home

(Left to right) JosŽ Velez (18), Jessica Martinez (40), William Velazquez (21) and Erc Velazquez (23) walk through the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago on September 19, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

William Velazquez, 21, remembers watching as multiple helicopters hovered over a park near his home on the southern coast of Puerto Rico days after Category 4 Hurricane Maria made landfall.

The packages contained food and water their family desperately needed, but because order had been lost in their town – fistfights were breaking out daily and the police were nowhere in sight – they decided not to make a run for the goods, Velazquez said.

A year ago Thursday, Hurricane Maria ravaged through Puerto Rico, destroying much of the island’s infrastructure. The storm – the strongest to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years – toppled trees onto roads and bridges, making it difficult to deliver aid. Its electrical grid was razed, leaving people without power for months.

The hurricane displaced thousands of Puerto Ricans, sending them across the country looking for a new home, including Chicago.

In the weeks following the storm, Velazquez and his family struggled to get the proper medical treatment for their diabetic father, and they had trouble finding clean drinking water. When Velazquez’s mental health started to take a toll, they made the decision to leave.

Video by Colin Boyle | Evacuees from Hurricane Maria speak on their experiences a year later.

A month after the storm, Velazquez and his brother found themselves living in a motel room in Florida with the help of FEMA. It wasn’t much and lacked a kitchen. Earlier, their aunt, Jessica Martinez, 40, had made the journey from Puerto Rico to Colorado but later moved to Humboldt Park with her 18-year-old son. She told them the help she was receiving on Chicago’s West Side was immense and the neighborhood felt almost like home.

“The Puerto Rican community in Chicago helped me,” Martinez said. “They got me a job, they helped me find housing. I have an apartment now.”

In February, Velazquez and his brother made the move to Chicago to live with their aunt. The two had never been to Chicago and didn’t know what to expect.

“I kind of just regressed into myself and was like, let me pretend that nothing is happening. I’m just going to be in my mind and call it a day,” Velazquez said. “This is going to sound grim, but I just didn’t even know if I was going to make it through it.”

(Left to right) Jessica Martinez (40), William Velazquez (21), JosŽé Velez (18) and Eric Velazquez (23) stand in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago on September 19, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times
(Left to right) Jessica Martinez (40), William Velazquez (21), JosŽé Velez (18) and Eric Velazquez (23) stand in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago on September 19, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Once Velazquez and his brother moved to Chicago things started to get better. Granted, it wasn’t home, but Velazquez felt like he could improve himself here. He and his brother got help to enroll in college; they both will start classes at Northeastern Illinois University soon. He says he still struggles from time to time with depression, but he has seen significant improvement. Velazquez doesn’t believe he could’ve gotten better anywhere else.

“It was a traumatic experience where people had to deal with the fact of losing their home, they may have lost family members, and then they are being relocated to an area that wasn’t known to them,” said Joel Mitchell, deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services. “That is why we decided to utilize the Puerto Rican community.”

Mitchell said as soon as city officials learned the storm might force people to leave the island and make their way to Chicago, they prepared for the displaced Puerto Ricans. The city helped established a multi-agency resource center and stationed it in the Humboldt Park fieldhouse. It operated two days a week from November 2017 through April 2018, serving as a point of service for evacuees needing assistance finding jobs, housing or anything else they might need. During the time it was operating, the city provided resources to about 1,700 people and about 900 families, MItchell said.

Though Velazquez and his brother are happy to be living in Chicago, they plan to return to Puerto Rico in a few years. Velazquez would like to complete his schooling here before moving back. He said the island is in desperate need of young professionals who can contribute to the economy – that’s what he hopes to do when he returns home.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.