On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in southeast Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm. Maria’s 150 mph winds knocked out the entire island’s communications, and millions of people lost power that would take over 10 months to fully restore. Without power, the water distribution systems in many towns failed. Main roads were washed out, leaving communities without food and water. In some cases, people were sourcing their drinking water from Superfund sites. Within weeks of Maria people on the island were dying of complications from treatable diseases like leptospirosis and diabetes. In the absence of government aid, people worked together with their neighbors to clear debris from the roads, repair their homes and rebuild their lives. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representatives began visiting communities in October. The wealthier parts of San Juan, Guaynabo and Rincón benefited from the assistance, but many people in poor and rural areas continued to rely on volunteer labor and donated supplies.

After coordinating with family and friends on the island, Joaquin took donated water filters, solar lamps, chargers, tarps, diapers, hygiene products, insulin and syringes to people in rural mountain areas. In his travels he met Carmen Salas, a San Juan artist, photographer and federal relief worker who had been recording her experiences in remote towns including Yabucoa, Yauco, Utuado and Añasco. After hearing people’s stories firsthand, she decided to self-produce a documentary about the ongoing rebuilding efforts.

This is a collection of Salas’ photos, with contributions from Joaquin, and photographers Armando Díaz and Guillermo Aviles. Ranging back to the day after the storm, they depict destruction and resilience in post-Maria Puerto Rico.

Joaquín Cotler is a reporter and producer living in Brooklyn, New York. A GroundTruth Reporting Fellow, he was awarded the Marguerite Casey Equal Voices Fellowship in 2017 to cover the opioid crisis in Puerto Rico. Since Hurricane María, Joaquín has reported extensively on the island’s rebuilding efforts. His work has been featured on NPR’s LatinoUSA, Rewire.News, Univision and Vice.

Born and raised in New York City, Angely Mercado is an editor and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bushwick Daily, The Lily, NPR, HelloGiggles and more. She writes about New York City, Latinidad and more.

 

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    May 2018, Yabucoa: “I photographed this gentleman because of the symbolic meaning of his boxing gloves,” says photographer, artist and filmmaker Carmen Salas. “In our culture, boxing is a highly acclaimed sport, but it also represents our constant fight as Puerto Ricans in honor of our values. The people united will never be defeated.” Photo by Carmen Salas

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    June 1, 2018, San Juan: The island’s official death registry estimated that 64 people died as a result of the hurricane. On May 29, a Harvard University study estimated that Maria killed 4,645 people. In response, people laid out hundreds of shoes and a banner in front of the capitol building. After collaborating with researchers at George Washington University on a long-term study, the Puerto Rican government adjusted the official death count to 2,975. Photo by Guillermo Aviles

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    September 2017, Puerta de Tierra: “This veteran recognizes everything that happens in his area,” says Salas. “He advised me to document everything I saw–that it was only the beginning.” Photo by Carmen Salas

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    September 2017, Caguas: “For several days after Maria, a new routine was set: line up to get cash at the ATM, line up for the precious gasoline resource and hope they didn’t run out of either,” says Salas. “Our dependence on gasoline in Puerto Rico really became clear to me, and so did the reality of the connection between demand and supply.” Photo by Carmen Salas

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    September 2017, Vega Baja: As a federal aid worker, Salas visited homes throughout the island evaluating people’s needs. “This little girl in Vega Baja was one of the people who was definitely happy to see me,” says Salas. “It was very emotional to me. I felt that by visiting people I was bringing some joy.” Photo by Carmen Salas

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    September 2017, Caguas: “This was one of the first photographs I took during my first day of traveling through what felt like a completely different world,” says Salas. “This power line outside Caguas stayed collapsed for more than six months.” Photo by Carmen Salas

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    October 2017, Vega Baja: “This woman is a warrior. She passed the hurricane alone in her home,” says Salas. “In this photograph she shows me her great strength and hope.” Photo by Carmen Salas

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    September 2017, Vega Baja: Most of the towns we visited had at least one monstrous debris pile like this and another for organic waste. Photo by Carmen Salas

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    October 2017, Vega Baja: “One of the most incredible things in my travels was this poor animal,” says Salas. ”I wondered how long this horse had been in this condition. I saw no one nearby.” Photo by Carmen Salas

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    October 2017, Santa Isabel: Along the south coast many wooden homes like this one photographed in Santa Isabel didn’t make it through the hurricane. Photo by Carmen Salas

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    November 2017, Loíza: “For me this woman represents the beauty of Loíza,” says Salas. “The town is made up of ‘fajón’ people, as we say in the street—working people.” Photo by Carmen Salas

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    October 2017, Toa Baja: Roads like this one in Toa Baja, captured by drone, remained washed out for weeks after the storm. Photo by Guillermo Aviles

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    November 2017, Aibonito: Farmer Abei Noriega and his family lost most of their house during the storm, and they went without electricity for seven months. Noriega used a solar inverter to charge his cell phone and occasionally play electric guitar. His family used gasoline-powered generators to fuel the pump for their well-water fed plumbing system, tools, farm equipment and refrigerator. Photo by Joaquin Cotler

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    September 2017, Vega Baja: “This father’s van was flooded when the river near his house overflowed. It had recently been repaired,” says Salas. “Despite what they had been through, he and his son were full of joy. He told me that since the storm had already passed it was necessary for us to get past it too.” Photo by Carmen Salas

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    November 2017, Jayuya: This chilling effigy was hanging over a main road in rural Jayuya. In the figure’s hands are a Puerto Rican flag and a brown parcel that resembles the packaging of FEMA rations. Photo by Joaquin Cotler

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    January 2018, Adjuntas: This coffin was removed from a grave site in Adjuntas in January to free up additional space. The body was cremated and buried again, but the rusty coffin wasn’t removed. Photo by Joaquin Cotler