Puerto Rico “Se Levanta”


Puerto Rico’s Ongoing Response and Recovery

SEPTEMBER 25, 2018

Toa Baja is a community on the Northeastern coast of Puerto Rico. It sits just 30 minutes west of the San Juan international airport and east of Dorado. More than one year after Hurricane Maria response work continues in this community, and hurricane season begins again. As the one-year anniversary looms comes to pass, All Hands and Hearts – Smart Response works diligently to help ill-prepared communities for another season. Numerous families remain living under tarped roofs, and in unsafe structures.


Tamara, or Tammy as we know her, has been a resident of Puerto Rico her whole life, and joined the All Hands and Hearts – Smart Response family when we first arrived on the island back in December. Having lived in Toa Baja as a child she became very connected to the unique situation the community faced.

“The thing about Toa Baja was, there’s a couple rivers and streams that run from the mountains down all the way to the coast, and it runs through the old town of Toa Baja. Usually when there’s a storm or hurricane, that area gets pretty flooded, a couple of feet. Two feet, three feet, not that bad. With this hurricane, right after it passed, they had to open the dam because it was about to break. There was a massive rush of water coming down from the mountains. Once the people started realizing that it was getting flooded, it took only minutes for the waters to reach all the way to 7, 8, 10, at some places even 14 feet high. A combination of high waves from the ocean, that mass of water coming down from the mountains, and a lake that is in Toa Baja almost flooded the whole town. All three bodies of water came together and flooded at least four neighborhoods completely. So in a matter of minutes the water started to rise, they started rescuing people through helicopters. There were people on the roofs asking for help, yelling. A lot of animals drowned. Some people in Toa Baja drowned as well… Once the water came down, what they found was whoever had a wood structure was almost 100% destroyed. Whoever had a concrete house, found inches of mud inside the house, with all their belongings destroyed, damaged, and covered in mud.”

   All Hands and Hearts opened a satellite base in Toa Baja and began welcoming volunteers in January.

“We stayed at a house in Via Calma, and at that time, there was no power, so we were living in the same conditions as the population. We had water but we didn’t have electricity. So it was a really hard dynamic, working the whole day, in a hot area, under the sun, cleaning houses, pressure washing. There was a lot of mud inside the homes. There were elderly that were living in muddy houses still. Then during the night we would turn on the generators and live with solar lanterns and generators.”


Tammy’s big friendly smile, and open heart bring added comfort to our homeowners. After a storm people are thrown into desperate situations, leaving them no option but to rely on the kindness of strangers. Unfortunately not everyone brings honest intentions, causing homeowners to become apprehensive with those they trust. All Hands and Hearts staff and volunteers help bring back this trust and hope with open and honest communication, open ears for listening, and only promising work we can accomplish. It is a beautiful and magical experience watching a face come back to the light, and often happens as quickly as the first day a team gets to a site.


Rosita, 56, shares her and her mother’s journey to recovery. She lives down the street from her 82 year old mother Elvira, and has cared for her every day for the last 4 years. Rosita opens the door to Tammy with a big smile and warm hugs.

“It was terrible, we had two hurricanes at the same time, and Maria impacted all of Puerto Rico, and my mom’s house was not an exception. We had a carport outside. Maria blew it away. She had a second story house, and the metal planks were gone, and then the structure and the debris that that caused presented a hazard for my mother. I was very desperate. I looked for help, everybody was very busy, or had limited resources. That’s when I was lucky and found the team of All Hands and Hearts. I spoke with them and told them my mom’s situation, and they didn’t doubt they could help me. They evaluated her case and they told me they were happy to help. During the time they were here they tarred down the structure, they cleaned up all the material, all the debris, so that wouldn’t present a hazard for my mom. By that time it was very emotional, and very good to know, that there’s still people from different parts of the world, and that are a part of this organization, that are willing to help. It left an impression on me seeing how they put all their soul, their life, and their heart. I can presume that they proudly represent the name of this organization, All Hands and Hearts. Todos Manos y Corazones. We are very grateful, my mom and myself.”


“Muchas gracias para todo. They were very nice.” Elvira chimes in with a smile ear to ear.

“I would like the world to know, and Puerto Rico, that there’s still people who are willing to help, and we wish that they continue to spread their blessings to all.” Rosita finishes.

“And good people!” Elvira adds.

Rosita and Elvira still have work to do to get prepared for another season of storms, while visiting Tammy decides to take another look at what is now their roof. Our scope of work has expanded in Toa Baja to sealing concrete roofs, and we’re hoping to help the family more. In April Elvira slipped and fell in her kitchen, fractured her nose, and experienced some internal bleeding in her brain. Rosita believes this happened due to a broken window that leaks water onto the floor when it rains. The window replacements were ordered long ago, but due to high demand, they continue to wait. They’re also experiencing some leaks from the roof.

Rosita leads Tammy from the living room to the outside of the home. A ladder is the only way to access the roof now, as the wooden stairwell was destroyed. What is now a roof once held a second story, and concrete room outlines identify where the structure once stood. Rosita only climbs part way up the ladder, “the volunteers showed me how to do this!” She exclaims proudly, “but I stop here.” Rosita points out the areas they’ve noticed leaking while Tammy walks around the roof to reassess it.


At the end of our interview Rosita shares her experience with the volunteers.

“I miss them!” She announces with a big smile and a heart full of joy.

“Please tell them, once again, that we are so grateful, and we’re happy to have them here. Our house is open for them, and for you too, and they have more friends in Puerto Rico.”

Juan and Abbey

Elvira is not the only homeowner that faces ongoing challenges. Volunteer Community Coordinator Abbey helped with the demolition of Juan’s home, and sits with him and his cousin, Nereida, who lived next door, to discuss his journey.

“The house was blown down by the hurricane. Two days after the hurricane I was hospitalized because of my foot and I spent a month and a half in the hospital.” Juan shares.

Juan was hospitalized because he started cleaning up debris right after Maria hit and got a nail in his foot. The added challenges of diabetes, and a hospital lacking full resources, resulted in a bacteria in his foot and gangrene up to his shin. He spent a month and half in the hospital, and continues to receive at-home care. A neighbor who volunteers with FEMA, told the family about All Hands and Hearts.

Before shot of Juan’s home when the team first arrived
Team leaders assessing the site before they start

“I lived there with my wife, my grandson and his wife, and their two small children. After the hurricane the only family who helped me through this was Nereida. She helped me in all aspects; you can always find me here (at her home). She has helped me as if I were her brother. We are family. Her Mom, my Aunt, takes care of me too.” Juan shares.


Nereida jumps in, “ Of course, I’d help him. I’m his closest family, and as a Christian I have to act. I don’t say this to glorify myself, but he’s my family.”

While Nereida helps care for Juan, his wife has been working tirelessly so they can purchase a new home.

Juan’s family support has been critical to his outcome during these trying times. Since Maria the ongoing challenges of basic necessities: reliable power, water, and resources, correlates to increasing rates of depression and suicide. Stress, anxiety, and poor sleep habits, wear on people’s overall mental health. It is easy to stay with family for a week, two weeks, a month, but ten months later, no one was prepared for that. “But despite all of this, we Puerto Ricans are people who don’t forget each other. In the middle of the disaster these people have been able to survive thanks to help, help from programs like All Hands and Hearts; and from Puerto Rican to Puerto Rican. We supplied generators, water, food for each other. They say that Puerto Rico ‘se levanta,’ will rise,” Nereida says.

Abbey finds a children’s birthday candle when she begins cleaning up the kitchen belongings

The day the volunteer team first arrived, Juan stopped by. He introduced himself and gave a few simple instructions. Everything was to go, his only wish was to recover a glass tabletop from the balcony, which was buried under the debris.

Team recovers the glass table top from under a pile of roof debris

He had few words to say other than thank you, shared a few handshakes, and smiles before retreating from the property. He spoke with a few of his neighbors before making his way across the street and taking a seat on a stoop. He sat there most of the morning, watching the team carefully toss what was once his whole life into a pile over the balcony. While he had moved into another house with his family, the remnants of his life pre-Maria lingered as a constant reminder. The team worked tirelessly under the hot Puerto Rican sun to help him.

Juan’s families belongs and house debris
Juan takes Abbey to meet the horses

Before leaving Juan takes Abbey to meet the horses.

“There are four, but they aren’t mine. They belong to a friend. I enjoy them but since I haven’t been able to get better I can’t (take care of them, ride them)”

The completed demolition of Juan’s home will make it easier to now sell the land, and begin to fully move forward from the hurricane.

After shot of Juan’s completed demolition

Puerto Rico has faced many challenges moving forward from Maria. Tammy shares her thoughts on her experience with All Hands and Hearts.

“There’s so many things to say, I don’t even know. I’m very happy that I’m working for an organization that really cares about the homeowners, that’s really important. In order for people to get help they had to apply through the Internet. The reality is there are a lot of elders that don’t have any relationship, or anything whatsoever to do with the Internet. They don’t even know how to type their name on the computer. It’s really important to use a system where it’s more social and more one to one. Just drive around and talk to people, and ask, what’s your need, how are you? What’s your story? How can we help you to live in a more habitable place? …I know the recovery on this island is a big monster and we’re starting with the next hurricane season. There are still people without power, there’s people living under tarps, and there’s people living with moldy houses.”


While many of the homeowners face a variety of obstacles they often impact our volunteers as much as we impact them. Homeowner Victor is a great example of that.

Victor shares his story, “I was sick before the hurricane. I couldn’t get the windows properly shut, I didn’t have any strength in my hands. I had these thin hands. I left the hospital the day before Maria. We were here (in the home) for the storm. We stayed here after the storm, my wife, my son-in-law, my daughters and the grandkids.”

Victor’s fight with cancer left him in a vulnerable situation, but he laughs when he reflects on his time with the volunteers.

“I liked the team, it was good for me.”

Victor enjoyed putting his many baseball uniforms on for the team, and sharing hands covered in championship rings.

“I was a champion. They certified me!” Victor exclaims with great pride.


Amelia looks on as Victor shares his Puerto Rico Jersey and a letter from Toa Baja Municipality and the Government of Puerto Rico

While many of the homeowners face a variety of obstacles they often impact our volunteers as much as we impact them. Homeowner Victor is a great example of that.

Victor shares his story, “I was sick before the hurricane. I couldn’t get the windows properly shut, I didn’t have any strength in my hands. I had these thin hands. I left the hospital the day before Maria. We were here (in the home) for the storm. We stayed here after the storm, my wife, my son-in-law, my daughters and the grandkids.