Hurricane Maria Survivors in New York City

By Avril Perez

To commemorate the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s ruthless passage through Puerto Rico, refugees united as one to remember the lives lost.

The event was organized by New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), an organization that despite being New York City based, has provided tireless support to post-Maria refugees. Partners included Power 4 Puerto Rico Coalition, the PR-NYC Long Term Recovery Group and the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

The refugees cried as prayers were said for the victims, especially when Power 4 Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mark-Viverito alluded to “Amanecer Borincano,” a song about Puerto Rican pride and value with words “I am the morning light that lights new paths,” and “I am the fruit of the future, the seed of tomorrow.”

Refugees and supporters argued that all these years they thought they were United States citizens, but now felt they were being treated as colonial subjects as the government failed to provide needed aid during the catastrophe.

“I’m 76 years old and I grew up believing that I was a citizen of the United States,” said Clemencia Cepeda, holding back tears. “All of a sudden we’re nobody, all of a sudden you are denying that I exist, that I am there. We are hurt, and we are dying because we have never felt so mistreated.”

Cepeda, a retired sociologist, lost her apartment in the city of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and says she did not receive any aid to pay the mortgage on the destroyed property. She was forced to move to Knickerbocker Village in China Town, where her two daughters have been living for about 30 years. She has been sleeping in their living room since her arrival.

With the help of NYDIS, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, Cepeda received a bed, clothing, and will soon be moving into her own apartment in Staten Island.

NYDIS is not a government organization, but from day one it has been committed to helping Puerto Rico and its evacuees. “We are here to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Executive Director Peter Gudaitis, referring to the way the disaster was handled by the American government.

The United States government originally reported that there were only 64 deaths caused by Hurricane Maria. However, a recent Harvard University study reported that the actual estimated death toll is of 4,645. This number only estimates the “excess deaths” that occurred between Sept. 20th and Dec. 31st, 2017.

“It’s not the wind and the rain, it’s what the wind and the rain do,” Cepeda said. “If you have people that need oxygen and you don’t have it, they are going to die.”

Cepeda has been working at a senior center called “Casita Maria” in the Bronx since January, and is very grateful for the help she has received in New York City and from the Department for the Aging. “People from the United States have been overwhelmingly generous,” she said.

The event culminated in a march to Trump Tower demanding justice for Puerto Rico, and accountability for the federal government’s response to the emergency.

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