‘Thanks to Habitat, I can come home again’

With hundreds of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed during Hurricane Maria, residents were forced to find shelter elsewhere — often with friends or family, but sometimes even in makeshift structures and tents on their property.

Hurricane Maria barreled toward all 3,515 square miles of Puerto Rico in September 2017, Juan Antonio had a choice to make — hunker down in his home in Las Carolinas, a working-class neighborhood in Caguas, or seek refuge elsewhere. “No one was expecting something so powerful,” he says, explaining his reluctance to abandon his home of 23 years. “We had never seen anything like it.”

At the last-minute urging of his sister, he opted to leave — a decision that he believes kept him safe. “If I would’ve stayed,” the 43-year-old says with certainty, “I wouldn’t have been so lucky.”

In September 2017, Maria, a Category 4 hurricane, directly hit Caguas, a municipality of 145,000 people in the central part of the island. Caguas landed in the top 10 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities for total household damage. As of April 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had only partially assessed the financial loss to the island, but in Caguas alone, those damages topped $130 million. As the storm stalled over the land, rain poured from the sky, with Caguas receiving 37.9 inches — the most of any area.

Juan Antonio under the new roof of his hurricane-damaged home.

After 155 mph winds blew the roof off his house, those inches fell directly into Juan Antonio’s home. By the time he was able to navigate a path back after the storm, he had nothing left to save. “Everything that was in the house — refrigerator, stove, television, bed, bedroom set, clothes — everything was lost,” he says. Outside, a palm tree had fallen on his car, totaling it. “Everything I had, even little valuable things …” he trails off, shaking his head. “It was a complete loss.”

In the two years since Maria made landfall, Juan Antonio continued to live with his sister, pursuing a number of paths to get the help he needed to rebuild. Each path proved to be a dead-end — until a conversation with his next-door neighbor led him to Habitat for Humanity of Puerto Rico.

For Juan Antonio, a new roof now replaces the blue tarps that covered his house for two years. The new hurricane- hardened roof comes with extra reinforcements to guard against future disasters. Once the inside is finally sealed, work can begin on the home’s interior — turning the ravaged structure back into a home.

Signs reading “Every person deserves a decent place to live” signify Habitat repair projects around the island.

“It’s like when you’re in the dark, and you start to see a little bit of light,” Juan Antonio says. “Over time, that light gets bigger — with hope and with happiness.” He is looking forward to the day when the work is complete, but for right now, Juan Antonio admits he is relieved just to see progress.

I looked for help in so many different places. If Habitat didn’t exist, I don’t think there would’ve been any way I could’ve fixed the house and be able to live here again,” he says. “Thanks to Habitat, I can come home again.”

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