Lucy Vallejo, 59, spent most of her life raising a family in Chicago. A few years ago, her family grown and ready to retire, she moved back to her native home of Puerto Rico, expecting to enjoy her golden years in island bliss. In the privacy of her own apartment, she did craft projects and enjoyed the company of her dog, friends, and family.
Then, the worst storm to hit the island, Hurricane Maria, hit.
“I’ve been through hurricanes in Puerto Rico,” she said. “But this one, this one was horrible.”
When Maria descended on the island September 20, it made a direct hit for more than twenty hours. Parts of the island saw thirty inches of rainfall and 115-mile-per-hour winds. Lucy was there for all of it.
For a month, she endured no running water, no electricity, and limited ability to reach her family and friends, including her sister who has Alzheimer’s disease. To shower, she collected buckets of rainwater and doused herself in her bathroom. Her furniture and most of her clothes were ruined. The crafts she so enjoyed were soaked and destroyed.
Still, Lucy is one of the lucky ones. On October 21, she was able to get a flight to Chicago and move in with her daughter in West Side Humboldt Park until she found her own place.
“As I flew out of Puerto Rico, I looked down and it looked like a war zone,” she said. “It’s going to take fifteen to twenty years for it go back to the Puerto Rico I knew.”
Hoping to find solace in Chicago, Lucy has found none. While she was told she was the first applicant for housing through the Chicago Housing Authority, others have been placed and she’s still waiting. On the second of each month, she receives food assistance of just $15 per month.
“I’m very disappointed,” she said. “I get depressed and I don’t know what to do. I’m fifty-nine years old and now I’m starting from scratch. Everyone I knew came to Chicago thinking this was the best place to get help.”
The team at Omni Healthcare in Humboldt Park has taken it upon themselves to make it more comfortable for evacuees. On November 20, they gave away three hundred turkeys to make those far from home feel at home.
“The Puerto Rican community has done so much for us and I wanted to give back,” Omni Healthcare Director Theresa Siaw said.
Siaw and Dr. Eric Mizuno, also of Omni Healthcare, were on the first medical relief flight to Puerto Rico.
“It was pretty scary because all the lights were down and at the airport; you’re flying in blindly. We landed in total darkness,” Siaw said. “I would say we almost died several times … but it was worth it to be able to help those who were in so much need.”
Moments after landing in Puerto Rico, Siaw says she remembers nothing but the overwhelming stench of sewage.
“There were animals dead in the street, and people were dying in their cars,” she said. “There was no clean drinking water, and the lines for gasoline took as long as three days to get through. And it wasn’t just Hurricane Maria, all of November is hurricane season, so the storms just kept coming and you’re doing the same work over and over.”
Siaw and Mizuno checked up on family members of those from Humboldt Park who couldn’t reach their loved ones and reported back once they returned. Now both of them back at the clinic, they’re offering free healthcare to evacuees.
“We see quite a few people who it’s their first time in the United States mainland,” Siaw said. “It’s a different world for them and it’s not the best season for them to be here. They have no winter coats or winter clothes. We’re connecting them to public aid, but you can feel the devastation. You can feel people losing hope.”
Humboldt Park, much of which is an under-served community, also sees a lot of violence. In November, there were sixty-seven violent crimes in the neighborhood, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“We’re doing anything we can to show people we care,” Siaw said. “It’s a small gesture to make people in our community, the people who are going to be our future, have a better life.”
For Lucy, her daughters want her to stay in Chicago, so that’s what she’ll do. But she hopes to find her own apartment soon.
“I was able to transfer some of money from my bank in Puerto Rico,” she said. “But it’s a challenge. Puerto Rico is dead. I have to stay here now.”