As Puerto Rico reeled after Hurricane Maria struck five years ago, photographer Janel Norton was in the town of Toa Baja, her lens trained on a child clutching boxes of crackers and other snacks handed out by authorities.
In La Perla, a troubled neighborhood in Old San Juán, another photo was taken, this time of a woman carrying a case of water, her white T-shirt bearing the words, “La Perla pinta su futuro” — “La Perla paints its future,” in Spanish.
The two photographs were of many taken to document recovery efforts on the island, capturing the hardships many faced in the storm’s aftermath while highlighting the resilience and solidarity of the Puerto Rican people. They were unveiled at the Orlando Public Library on Saturday, part of a photo exhibition called “Por Siempre María,” on view there until Jan. 8.
Created through a partnership with the Orange County Library System and the nonprofit Latino Leadership, the exhibition comes nearly five years to the day since Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island. Norton, a former photojournalist and combat photographer, made her first trip to Puerto Rico in the aftermath as part of a humanitarian mission to collect and distribute much-needed supplies.
Though many of the photos gave a glimpse of the struggle for supplies after the storm hit, many showed a lighter side, of people laughing and smiling, making the best of the chaos.
“You never really know what you’re coming into when people are in a desperate situation like that,” Norton said. “But you can see, even though they’d been living 10 days [like that] when we got there, they were pretty desperate yet look at their faces. They’re very resilient.”
Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, as a Category 4 storm, causing billions of dollars in damage and leaving most people without power for months while rebuilding efforts continue years later. Authorities were initially accused of undercounting deaths, though later counts placed at the death toll between 1,500 and nearly 3,000 lives lost between the storm and its aftermath.
It also sparked an exodus of Puerto Ricans fleeing the storm, many arriving in Central Florida to reunite with family and a diaspora community living here. But even after they left, many still remembered to offer help once they arrived to the U.S. mainland.
“We never left Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico has never left us,” said Marucci Guzmán, executive director of Latino Leadership.
Memories of the humanitarian efforts made immediately after the storm remain vivid in the mind of Héctor Figueroa, who joined the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in 2013 after serving as a Puerto Rican police officer.
Following the storm, he became part of a team that by day helped coordinate recovery efforts throughout the island. By night, he was on another mission, tracking down and establishing contact with relatives of deputies and other officials living in Seminole County.
They would carry boxes of food and supplies in their vehicles as they made their runs. Many families, he said, were down to their last bottle of water by the time they arrived.
“We would arrive at their homes and call their loved ones on our satellite phones,” Figueroa recalled, with tears in his eyes. “It was gratifying. In all my years living there, we never lived through something like [Hurricane Maria].”
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Saturday’s exhibition also comes as Tropical Storm Fiona makes its way through the Caribbean. With 65 mph winds, the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning for Puerto Rico, with the storm expected to strengthen into a Category 1 Sunday.
The NHC predicts Fiona’s center will move “near or just south” of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands through Sunday, with the storm expected to bring up to 16 inches of rain the island.
Five years after Hurricane Maria, many are still struggling to rebuild what was lost to the storm, said Orange County Commissioner Maribel Gómez Cordero, who tries to visit Puerto Rico three times a year.
“I sometimes go around, and there are still things that are being fixed,” Gómez Cordero said. “Things are still very difficult, but it doesn’t matter how long it’ll take, it still hurts. Those are our people, that’s our island.”
Access to reliable electricity remains an issue on the island, with the lights briefly going out during Gov. Pedro Pierluisi’s press conference ahead of Fiona making landfall. But officials at the exhibition Saturday say they remain ready should more aid be needed.
“It’s ironic that here we are five years later, and now we’re watching another [possible] hurricane off the coast,” said Jeff Hayward, president of Heart of Florida United Way. “Let’s say a few prayers and may God bless Puerto Rico.”