Story

Recovering on Wheels After Hurricane Maria

Keishla Rolón and Alexis Smith in Carolina, Puerto Rico

Keishla Rolón (left) and Alexis Smith in front of Keishla's home in Puerto Rico. Image by Kyja Reeves. United States, 2018.

Keishla Rolón (left) and Alexis Smith in front of Keishla's home in Puerto Rico. Image by Kyja Reeves. United States, 2018.

Traveling through the capital of Puerto Rico and its surrounding areas, traces of Hurricane Maria lay scattered throughout the region. The storm was considered the worst natural disaster on record to impact Puerto Rico, with $139 billion in damages, 2,975 deaths, and over three million people affected by the island’s blackout.

Keishla Rolón of Carolina, Puerto Rico, a victim of Hurricane Maria, is still reeling from its devastating effects. A journalist with the local newspaper Viva Carolina La Revista and a radio show host for Notiuno, Rolón lives with muscular dystrophy-spinal muscular atrophy. The condition presents weakness in Rolón’s muscles making it challenging for her to breathe, swallow, and walk.

After Hurricane Maria knocked out electricity to most of the island, Rolón recognized how much she depended on electricity for her livelihood and daily survival. Without access to electricity, Rolón’s ability to use any of her technological devices was compromised. Moreover, without access to the Internet, she was not only disconnected from her job, but also from the rest of the world.

“I noticed how much I needed electricity and power in order to live my life the way  I usually did," Rolón remarks.

Over 1.3 million people lost electricity when Puerto Rico’s fragile power grid failed due to the storm—the second largest blackout in United States’ history. Even when places near Rolón’s home began to have electrical service, Rolón was unable to travel to these locales to take advantage electrical services due to a bigger issue—the storm had left her homebound.

The physical challenges and threat of job loss left Rolón stressed and uncertain as to how she could resume her daily routine. “I couldn’t work from home because I [had] no phone, I didn’t have Internet. So I was a deserted island inside my house,” Rolón says.

Other aspects of Rolon’s life were interrupted too, and consequently, affected her overall wellbeing. She sighed as she reminisced back on this difficult time. "The first thing I was worried about was my powered wheelchair because the electricity went out, so I had no way to charge it. I felt stranded inside the house because I could not move around as I usually did.” 

However, Rolon soon discovered that her situation was more dire than she had imagined. Her motorized wheelchair became emerged in standing water inside her home, causing the wheels on it to be irreparably damaged and inoperable.

Adversity did not end there for Rolón. Floodwater had risen so high inside her home that it also damaged the motor on her bed, which she relied on to change positions during the night in an effort to alleviate breathing issues and to prevent leg cramps. Moreover, her customized mattress became mold-infested, causing her to develop allergies.

With no immediate help in sight, Rolón tried to adjust to what had become her new normal. She recalls placing pillows underneath her legs as she lay in the dilapidated, moldy bed in an effort to try to alleviate discomfort associated with recurring leg cramps.

Prior to Hurricane Maria, Rolón's doctors were able to come to her house to treat her when she was in physical pain. However, because she and her doctors had no means of communicating due to the lack of electricity, Rolón relied on pain medication to temporarily soothe her discomforts.

Rolón reached out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for financial assistance in replacing the items she most needed to survive with her disability—the wheels on her chair, a new bed, and mattress. FEMA denied assistance. Rolón declares that FEMA reported she made too much money to qualify for disaster assistance. With no other option, Rolón eventually decided to use her credit card to purchase the medical equipment she needed for daily survival. She also purchased a power generator as she thought about the “what ifs” of another natural disaster.

Unfortunately, a functioning wheelchair and a new bed were not quick fixes for Rolón’s problems. Outside her home lay heavy debris and a fallen tree that were left by the storm. Roads and paths to her home were impassable. “I thought, maybe I'm going to lose my job if I am not able to [get around the debris]. It’s not like a normal person [who] can jump [over] the debris…For me, I needed to use my car. I needed to use my wheelchair, so I needed the areas to be cleaned,” she said.

Eventually, neighbors came to assist Rolón. “They cooked. They came up with a hot meal for me because they knew I wasn't able to get to the supermarket," she recalls. Most importantly, Rolón’s neighbors were able to cut down the tree and help to remove debris in front of her home as city officials worked to clear the roads.

Rolón felt a sense of relief and newfound freedom that she had not experienced since before Hurricane Maria. She was able to slowly get her life back on track. One of her first ventures was to the Municipal Emergency Operation Center, which assists residents and visitors who are impacted by natural disasters and other catastrophes. Every day, for a few hours, Rolón visited the center in order to charge her chair little by little until it was fully charged.

Rolón’s ordeal was not without long-lasting emotional stress. She still vividly remembers the angst she felt from not knowing if her many friends, who depended on breathing machines to survive, had died during Hurricane Maria due to the loss of electricity or not being able to get medical attention. “I thought oh my God, how is this and that person going to do now that they have no power, no electricity?" "Are they breathing okay? Aare they safe? Did they get to the hospital in time? How did they do?"

When asked if she felt that the U.S. government had done enough to help the people of Puerto Rico to recover from Hurricane Maria, she hesitates and sighs before responding.

“I have mixed feelings about that…because I think we did receive help from the local government too. I know that if that didn’t happen, it would be impossible for us. Well, at least I would not be where I am today… In comparison, to other disasters in the United States, the government responded [to Hurricane Maria] a lot slower. When Hurricane Irma happened, FEMA was helping people to the airports. But for Puerto Rico, it took three weeks for FEMA to help. That's a shame because we are U.S. citizens. We pay our taxes, we go to the Navy, we go to the Army, and we defend the American flag.”