TOA ALTA, Puerto Rico – Life is better for Michelle Rebollo since Hurricane Maria upended her world last year. The electricity vanishes at times, often for hours, but is largely back on, water flows steadily from faucets and work crews finally hauled away piles of debris left by the storm.
Yet life is still far from normal. She’s a month behind in her bills. Her income is unsteady. Worst of all, the jovial unity forged among her neighbors in the storm’s immediate aftermath has faded to sullen despair.
“Recovery here has been so slow that it’s affected people,” said Rebollo, 45. “Everyone’s tense. No one’s talking to one another. You see it in their faces: They’ve changed.”
The powerful Category 4 Hurricane Maria raked across the island Sept. 20, killing at least 60 people and causing widespread damage. It was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in 89 years.
As the six-month anniversary of the storm approaches, Puerto Ricans are trudging slowly away from survival and into the difficult realities of long-term recovery.
Nearly 200,000 families and businesses — 16% of the island — remain without power. The island faces a growing mental health crisis as people wrestle with their losses from the storm. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is answering tough questions about botched contracts in its recovery effort.
So far, the agency has approved $1 billion in individual assistance grants, which goes to households, and an additional $558 million in public assistance grants for things like repairs to bridges and government buildings.
“Wheels are spinning, but things don’t seem to get off the ground,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told the non-profit news site Democracy Now!
For Rebollo, recovery has been slow and frustrating. USA TODAY first met Rebollo in October as she captured water from a mountain stream on the side of a highway near Naranjito, about 20 miles southwest of San Juan. The following month, electricity and water returned to her home, though she was still washing clothes by hand because Maria damaged the washer and dryer she kept outside on the patio.
Today, her top concerns are the lack of revenue from her tour business and the darkening moods of Puerto Ricans. She lives in a small concrete home in Toa Alta, about 20 miles west of San Juan, with seven other family members: her two grown daughters, her 12-year-old son and four grandchildren. "I have a lot of mouths to feed," Rebollo said.
Her tour company, Aventura Total, relies on young Puerto Ricans and foreigners wanting to take trips such as kayaking near Culebra Island or hiking in El Yunque National Forest. But many people are leaving Puerto Rico in the wake of the storm and foreigners are still hesitant to visit, she said. Where she would organize trips of 15 or 16 people every week or every other week before Maria, today she averages around six or seven people — and sometimes none, she said.
A FEMA worker visited Rebollo's home in mid-January — four months after she applied for assistance — but she said the federal disaster agency denied her any money because she has home insurance. The federal agency routinely doesn't award disaster grants until a claim is first processed through the homeowner's private insurance.
“It’s hard,” Rebollo said. “I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders."
Electricity returned to the Rebollo home last year. But outages still routinely hit the neighborhood. On a recent afternoon, the lights went out at the home as Rebollo prepared to go shopping with her daughter. Rebollo quickly set up solar-powered lamps around the home as the sky darkened outside.
Using a Coleman propane camp stove she keeps under the sink, she boiled water in a large pot to cook pasteles and rice while the children played dominoes by camp lamplight outside, where it's cooler. "Unfortunately, this is normal," she said.
Another concern has been money. A temp agency that once assigned her jobs cleaning out molded merchandise at a storm-damaged Home Depot in Caguas now only offers work placing tarps on roofs. But the company doesn't offer insurance, and Rebollo said she can't risk falling off a roof and leaving her family without an income-earner.
Through the hardships, Rebollo has been awed by the random kindness of strangers. One JetBlue flight attendant reached out to her via her firm's Facebook page, took her, her daughter and grandson out to breakfast in San Juan and left her a suitcase full of batteries, solar-powered lamps and other gifts. A former boss at her Home Depot temp job gave her a $500 Walmart gift certificate for Christmas and a $200 check for groceries.
"I fell to the floor, crying," she said.
But she's worried about her fellow Puerto Ricans. Whereas not long ago everyone on the street was asking about the welfare of each other or handing out plates of food, today everyone seems to be tense and quiet, she said. While waiting in line at the bank recently, Rebollo started telling jokes out loud to break the tension.
“That trait of helping each other out, asking if you had power or water, we’ve lost that,” she said. “I’d like to see it return.”
Rebollo is taking online classes at Bayamón Central University several hours a week and plans to graduate in August with a bachelor’s degree in social work. She hopes to someday open a senior center to help the island’s elderly population, one of the hardest hit by the storm.
But she realizes life will likely never return to what it was before the storm.
“We’ll never be normal again,” Rebollo said. “Maria really clobbered us. For better or for worse, we’ve all changed.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.