In late September of 2017, Puerto Rico experienced a storm like few others.
The aftermath of Hurricane Maria was a nightmare that some continue to live to this day. Communities completely cutoff by rising waters and storm damage. Communications networks and electricity grids kept many in the dark – both literally and figuratively – as they attempted to not just rebuild their lives, but survive day-to-day.
Staff Sergeant Kelvia Flores, Chaplain Assistant assigned to the Connecticut Army National Guard’s 143rd Regional Support Group, could not stand idly by.
Flores was born on a military base in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, and her parents still live in Caguas to this day. Leading up to the storm, her parents, like so many others, prepared for the worst, but hoped for the best.
“I thought we would be okay. I was holding out hope that Maria would deviate and wouldn’t be as strong by the time it got to Puerto Rico,” Flores said. “We’re islanders, so I had a lot of trust in my family to be able to handle hurricane conditions since we’ve been through so many.”
According to Flores, those on the island prepared diligently, but who could possibly expect Maria to hit as hard as it did?
Flores was born into a military family. Her father is a retired Guardsman, and according to Flores, one of the first to deploy after September 11, 2001. She also has two cousins forging military careers: one as an officer in the Puerto Rico National Guard, the other on Active Duty.
Military training hinges on proper preparation – a fact not lost on Flores. But some storms are just too much.
“We’ve had these threats before, but I still called my family made sure everything was prepared, like food, generators, everything…just like everyone else had done,” Flores said. “It wasn’t that people negligently failed to prepare, or just ignored the warnings. Nobody expected for the storms to hit as hard as they did,” Flores said.
“People were prepared to be offline for a month or two. Never did anyone imagine a nearly year-long power outage.”
As the storm warnings intensified, Flores knew she had to get home.
“I was tracking (Maria) and when I realized a couple days before the storm how bad it was, I wanted to get on a flight to go home and be with my father,” Flores said.
When the storm made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017, Flores, like many Puerto Rican natives that moved to the U.S., lost contact with family. No phone calls, no e-mails, no updates to social media. Flores was worried, considering she speaks to her father every day. She said the two weeks of radio silence they endured felt like, “forever.”
The lowest point, according to Flores, came while watching the news. A camera crew did a live report from her father’s neighborhood and Flores immediately recognized the street. As the cameras rolled, first responders and good Samaritans alike could be seen helping residents escape – but Flores’ father was nowhere to be found.
Through the power of social media, however, Flores was able to confirm her father’s whereabouts and health.
“We ended up having to go through Facebook,” Flores said. “A friend of my brother somehow drove over there and sent us a picture on October 4th after finding cell service.”
The timing could not have been better. Flores had already booked a flight to San Juan that was rescheduled for Oct. 5, and making contact with family made arrangements to rendezvous at the airport much easier.
What was going to be difficult were getting the hundreds of pounds of donations she intended to bring with her thanks to a collection drive at the dance studio Flores owns.
“I put out on the internet that I would be heading to Puerto Rico and offered to take donations down,” Flores said. “People reached out to me and said they had not heard from family, so I took down information. I also heard from people who were in contact with their families, but without the medicine, food, or water they needed. One family gave me an entire suitcase to bring down to help family members with those needs.”
The airline was permitting those flying to bring down two suitcases and a carry on free of charge, but they showed overwhelming support for Flores’ personal mission. They waived the fees and allowed Flores to bring five, 100-pound suitcases, plus a piece of carry on luggage, in addition to her brother’s three bags.
The rising amount of items donated needed to be prioritized. Flores tried to put herself in the shoes of those in Puerto Rico: What do they need the most? She decided to bring essentials like flashlights, batteries, and even a collection of important medical items that her sister (a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital) had rounded up thanks to the hospital staff.
As Flores touched down, the devastation she witnessed firsthand was like nothing she had ever seen. It was even worse than the detailed news reports let on.
Undeterred, Flores and her brother made their way around the island, helping anyone they could. Whether it was helping to cover a destroyed roof with a tarp or stopping to let someone use her newly-purchased satellite phone to call someone in the continental United States and let them know they were still alive, Flores knew that her first trip should be a short one.
“We wanted to get in and get out because the problem you have with a lot of the people wanting to help is that they have no exit strategy,” Flores said. “If you stay longer than a couple days, you now are someone who needs to be taken care of, and that is not what we came to do. Our plan was to assess the island and get out.”
Noting how bare supermarkets around the island had become, she identified canned food as a need that should be prioritized for her second trip, which she made in November 2017. Flores plans on making an annual trip every November, to annually recognize the loss of her mother, who she lost on Thanksgiving night last year.
“Our focus is to bring hope to the Puerto Rican people in a month where the focus should be gratitude despite losses,” Flores said.
Her dance studio and the community really took to Flores’ hard work and dedication to not only helping her family, but anyone on the island that would take a helping hand. Her studio was never short of donations, and Flores even worked with her father to help a local post office receive and deliver supplies at a cost of $20 per box.
“The spirit of the Puerto Rican people remains,” Flores said. “They looked scared and hurt, but never wavered from that determination that they were going to get through this.”
When asked what she wants people to know about Puerto Rico a year after Hurricane Maria, she reminds us that people are still suffering and still in need, even though the relief efforts are no longer dominating the headlines.
“The efforts for restoring Puerto Rico must continue to be ongoing,” Flores said. “People are still rebuilding a year later because they lost everything. There’s still a huge need for basic donations. Wherever you are, if you have the opportunity to donate, please do.”
The nine-year Veteran of the Connecticut National Guard vows to continue the fight, no matter how long it takes.