PUERTO RICO — Winding along the highway toward Aguada, the trees on this island look like its inhabitants: Suffering. Changed.
In some patches, it looks like someone took a sharpener and whittled the trees to stubs. In others, they’re broken in half, tumbling over each other in delicate balance. In more mountainous zones, uprooted trees lie upside down as if frozen or caught in a free-fall, threatening to slide onto the roads.
But if you turn off Highway 2 and onto a hilly road, you’ll find a clearing. And in it, an “Earthship.”
The gray, dome-shaped hut made up of recyclable materials and slathered in concrete rises from the brown earth in front of the hurricane-ravaged rain forest.
Lauralina Melendez, one of the lead volunteers at the site, inevitably can be found nearby. On a recent morning, she stood by the Earthship’s entrance, her dreadlocks piled on top of her head. Dirt caked her fingernails, tattoos decorated her arms and a smile pulled at the corner of her lips. She was talking about one of her favorite subjects.
“The idea is to keep building these bad boys all over the island,” Melendez said. “There’s tires. There’s trash. And there’s more hurricanes.”
It’s been more than 200 days since Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory Sept. 20. After the storm cleared, residents emerged one-by-one from their homes. With wide eyes and pounding hearts, nearly 3.4 million American citizens gazed in horrified wonder at the wreckage of their land.
No light. No greenery. And for many, no potable water.
“We can ride the storm, but what happens afterward, that’s hard,” said Melendez, an Aguada resident. “There’s a loneliness. A lack of knowing where to go and who to stick to.”
The Category 4 hurricane knocked down 80 percent of the utility poles, resulting in an islandwide blackout. About 43,000 residents still were without power before another islandwide blackout last week.
“The suffering of the Puerto Rican people seems to be nowhere nearing an end,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told national news outlets Wednesday.
The storm could cause an estimated $90 billion in damage, making it the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history, the National Hurricane Center’s April report states.
Some 283 schools are expected to close, a result of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican families escaping to the mainland in refuge. It’s also part of a larger strategy to save money during post-hurricane recovery.
There’s a mental health crisis. Since the hurricane, suicides have increased almost 30 percent, and calls to the government’s suicide-prevention hotline more than doubledbetween November and January, compared with the previous year.
There’s a housing crisis. Government officials say as much as half of the island’s homes lack deeds or official permits, often a requirement to apply for federal aid. The Puerto Rican government estimates the damage in housing alone costs $37 billion.
Homes with zinc roofs and schools with flimsy walls were flattened. Residents of poorer, rural areas had a harder time qualifying for aid, and those who were indirectly killed weren’t necessarily tallied up in the death toll.
While the government’s official count of direct deaths is 64, a New York Times analysis estimated that number is at more than a thousand.
And Maria struck after the island already was spiraling toward a man-made disaster. The island filed for a form of bankruptcy last May, with more than $120 billion in debt and unfunded pensions—the largest in U.S. history. And a whopping 43.5 percent of its residents were living in poverty, the U.S. Census Bureau’s report last summer stated.
In the days and weeks after Maria, Puerto Ricans hustled to distribution centers and stood in line for hours to get bottles of water or tanks of gas. One islander said 21 of his chickens were killed, the wind pulling off their feathers until they were plucked clean, looking “like they came from the supermarket.” Another recalled seeing a golden arch lodged in a tree — a partial “M” from a broken McDonald’s sign.
“We literally got knocked back into the stone age,” said Carlos Chaparro, an Aguada resident originally from Chicago.
In less-populated areas like Aguada, people commuted by hiking, carrying machetes to chop down trees and brush, slowly making travel along blocked paths more and more accessible with each slash at a tree.
“The collective energy of survival — it’s crazy,” Melendez said. “When everybody is in survival mode, it’s so scary.”
But the work of survival has slowly but surely become one of revival. On the western coast of the island in Aguada, the Earthships are rising — self-sustainable, sturdy huts that can serve as refuges during hurricanes in the rural communities that were slow to recover and receive aid in Maria’s aftermath.
In the central mountainous region of Jayuya, teachers and students are pooling resources between families to keep attendance rates up. Islandwide, residents have started Facebook pages to share water, food, fuel, information. Charities and government agencies from near and far are dropping in to test water, disperse more nonperishables or clean up the debris.
Even the greenery is poking tentatively from the earth. Vines and other new flora are wrapping themselves around the broken trees and stretching their leaves into the hot, humid sky.
In the weeks after the hurricane, Puerto Ricans would say: “No estamos vivendo, pero estamos vivo.” We’re not living, but we’re alive.
Now they’re resurrecting the flags above their homes, donning shirts with images of their island, and scrawling ,“Puerto Rico se levanta!” or “Puerto Rico rises!” on street corners.
“We’re changing the way we live, the way we build, the way we think, and the way we take care of each other,” Melendez said. “And especially the way we rise from something like that.”
Barefoot children with leaves tangled in their unruly hair clambered around the Earthship campsite in Aguada one recent afternoon. They squatted around a small mound of wet earth. Savion Chaparro, 11, added a few twigs he discovered and Melendez’s 6-year-old son, Poe Luna Melendez, carved out a small pool for water.
“It’s a little lizard Earthship,” Poe said.
“Why can’t it be for insects?” Savion asked. Poe grimaced — clearly insects were worse than lizards, in his opinion.
Some 20 feet away, the actual 17-foot-diameter Earthships were being built by a handful of unshaven, sunburned volunteers. One hut’s done, another is almost done, and there’s three left to start.
In their finished state, the structures heat and cool through natural, thermal technology, harness energy from the wind and sun to generate electricity, and filter rainwater in a natural plumbing system.
The huts in Aguada will serve as an educational hub for environmental awareness, self-sustainability practices and hurricane-resistance preparation, Melendez said. She also hopes they will be spaces for other communal activities like woodworking and self-defense classes. The compound will serve as an emergency shelter in future hurricanes.
“Our mission is to have centers like these around the island in forgotten pockets, where it’s not that the government doesn’t want to come bring Tonita water and fix her roof, it’s just that before Tonita there’s a bunch of other people to help,” Melendez said, referencing a typical elderly resident. “Everybody needs help at that time. So we can’t rely on one organization to make that happen.”
The huts were developed 50 years ago by Earthship Biotecture, a Taos, New Mexico, company that since has grown and developed its own nonprofit, Biotecture Planet Earth, that does humanitarian aid work. The idea for this kind of living was developed by the avant garde architect Michael Reynolds, also the company’s founder and featured in the documentary “Garbage Warrior.”
The nonprofit operates on the belief that off-grid homes are especially helpful for those vulnerable to natural disasters. It has built Earthships — which serve as individual homes, community centers or school classrooms — in multiple foreign countries experiencing humanitarian crises, including Haiti, Nepal, Canada and the Philippines.
This is its first in Puerto Rico, and the company hopes to expand to other regions besides Aguada.
The large, cylindrical huts are made up of 300-pound tires packed with dirt and rocks. Mario Antunez, a local volunteer, said his team has rescued more than 100 tires that were headed for landfills to use for this project, adding that 18,000 tires are disposed of daily on the island.
In the space between the tires, debris from the hurricane is inserted as insulation and sealed with cement. Steel metal lath lines the bottom of the homes and the ceiling, which is layered with all kinds of “insulation” — from plastic bottles to dryer lint.
“Our main goal is to use as much recycled material as possible,” Antunez said.
Surrounding the arched entrance of the hut is a decoration of broken bottles, artfully arranged into like a work of stained glass pointillism. When the natural light shines through, a swirling, dotted color pattern reflects on the opposite wall.
“In the morning all this is shining and it’s like a religious experience,” Antunez said.
About 10 volunteers, mostly local but some from the mainland U.S., are slowly but steadily working on the Earthship. They’re looking forward to the launch of Phase II in June, when international volunteers are expected to arrive and speed up the process. The nonprofit is raising money for the effort.
When the first drops of rain landed on the roof of Escuela Antonio Romero Muniz this year, Maria Cordero said her students began to cry.
“They thought there was going to be another hurricane,” the school principal said in Spanish. “We all remain emotionally effected.”
The town of Jayuya, located in the central, mountainous region of Puerto Rico, was hit hard by Hurricane Maria. Trees, brush and water filled and damaged Cordero’s school building — and the homes of those who frequented it.
There are 295 students at her elementary and middle school in Jayuya. And 84 of them lost everything in the storm.
Cordero and her teachers came up with those numbers right after Maria struck. She said they gathered at the school, split into teams and conducted a survey, hunting down every one of the pupils to see how their families had fared.
“The kids opened up about their experiences. All that first week was about opening up about all of this,” she said. “It was emotional support for the kids, it was emotional support for their families.”
The hurricane appears to have pushed an already strained school system over the edge. Puerto Rico’s education department announced it will close 283 public schools due to shrinking enrollment. Meanwhile, Gov. Ricardo Roselló has a plan to overhaul education by paving the way for charters and private school vouchers.
Cordero worries about the invisible scars her children harbor, and how it will effect them in years to come. Her school only has one social worker, she said.
When it opened its doors Oct. 31 — more than a month after the hurricane hit — she said her school was the first in the district to do so. Even then, students attended for only half-days, with no electricity and no water. Teachers taught in dark classrooms.
“My chest felt so tight all the time. But I had to keep moving forward. I left early, early in the morning and came back late at night,” Cordero said. “There was no rest for us — not even during Christmas. We kept working.”
Cordero’s school had no electricity till Jan. 2. She remembers the moment when they knew: the school bell rang. Everyone jumped up and screamed. The school bell hadn’t worked for more than three months.
“That was a joy,” she said, saying that the kids cheered with heightened emotion.
“It was like a party,” she said. “But I knew that when they got home there wouldn’t be water and, sometimes, no light.”
Cordero remembers when they first were able to serve hot food — the kids ate like never before. She still worries about who has enough food. Many survive on the fruit and vegetables off the land, she said. But many of the orange, coconut and banana trees were killed.
“You get depressed. Knowing that things are tough for you and thinking that there are others that have it worse,” she said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and nonprofits came to their aid, first by helicopter and then by bus as the roads cleared. FEMA roped off a part of the school deemed unsafe, and then set up shop, offering food, water and other necessities to the community.
The storm wiped away all of the leaves and brush, leaving the large, grandiose mountains bare. Villages in the mountains that previously were hidden by the forest were suddenly laid bare. Cordero remembered thinking of some of those homes in the distance, and wondering if someone with food and water had managed to reach them.
“This taught us that we have to look behind us, that there are others that need more than us. They’re who we have to lift up, those people,” she said. “You can’t unravel over what happened or what will happen. You’ve simply fallen, and what’s important is that you get up. The material comes and goes, but what’s important is the human being.”