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Desiree Torres fled Puerto Rico six months ago. Now she and her family are fighting to make a new home in Central Florida 

Desiree Torres knew exactly what she would do when things fell apart.

She would fasten her baby in his stroller and grab her two other children by the hand. Together, they'd get on a bus for a 30-minute ride to downtown Kissimmee, walk the remaining block of Church Street and head to city hall. Inside, Torres and her kids would find a spot to sit and wait for the help that was promised.

"For real," she says. "They were the ones who said the doors were open to us in Florida. 'We will help you,' they said."

Her face hardens.

"Where is the help you're giving me if you're throwing me out onto the street with my kids?" she asks in Spanish. "I'm not asking for clothes. I'm not asking for food. I'm not asking for luxuries. In that moment, I just wanted a safe place to sleep."

Torres sits pensive on the motel floor as her 2-year-old son, Ramsses, gurgles happily riding around her on a plastic toy train.

It was February when we first met, five months since Torres' family survived Hurricane Maria – five months since they decided to flee the devastation in Las Piedras, five months since they took a plane to Orlando, five months since they ended up in this beige-colored, budget Super 8 room off Highway 192.

It would be easier in Florida, the then 30-year-old Torres had thought. After all, local and state officials had promised to do what they could to help the tens of thousands of evacuees arriving from Puerto Rico – some staying with their families, others at local hotels under a voucher program called Transitional Shelter Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

click to enlarge Desiree Torres taking a break after cooking - PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
  • Desiree Torres taking a break after cooking

But it wasn't easy. Every month, FEMA reconsidered each evacuee's case for continued hotel assistance, paying the hotel's going rate. Many families were approved, but others fell through the cracks. Torres had watched them leave her motel, anxious faces wondering where they would spend the night as they were pushed into the unknown.

"We have two weeks of happiness after they approve you and two weeks of stress when you have to wait for the extension," she says. "People get desperate."

The last time the deadline approached, Torres panicked. She couldn't eat or sleep. She found waiting lists for public housing with thousands of people ahead of her. In vain, she called local homeless shelters as far away as Tampa to find any available space. At one shelter, the person who picked up the phone told her it would be a 30- to 90-day wait.

"Do you have a car?" the shelter receptionist asked her.

"No," a confused Torres replied.

"Well if you did, you could at least sleep there with the kids," the receptionist said.

It was too much to absorb. Maria had taken everything from Torres – her house, her job, her kids' future on the island. Now she was here trying to do what seemed like the impossible – make a home for her family in a place where she can't afford one.

"We was struggling over there, and now we struggling over here," she says.

click to enlarge Desiree Torres taking care of her son Ramsses - PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
  • Desiree Torres taking care of her son Ramsses

SEPTEMBER

"Not many people know this," Martha Beltrán begins as she lights her second cigarette. "But the winds from the hurricane were so strong that, in Puerto Rico, the earth trembled."

She puts her hand on her forehead.

"Fue horrible, horrible."

Beltrán watched Maria wreak chaos from a small bathroom window. The 62-year-old had a feeling it would be bad. She'd been telling her three children to stock up on supplies for weeks – but only Desiree listened. After all, Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm on record, had skirted the island two weeks before, causing no major damage except for cutting power to 1 million people.

Beltrán prepared herself for the night Maria came. She put her elderly cousin in the safest room of her house in Las Piedras, then locked herself in a bathroom stocked with her necessities – a thermos full of coffee, cigarettes, an ashtray, pillows, a blanket and some munchies.

Above her house, Torres' apartment was empty – she'd gone to stay in a safer place with the children not too far away.

On Sept. 20, Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, making landfall just south of Yabucoa Harbor at 6:15 a.m. with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour. (A Category 5 storm has sustained winds of 157 miles per hour or more.) The cyclone knocked out the island's main weather radar that the National Weather Service uses to monitor storms and brought at least 30 inches of rain.

About 15 miles north of Yabucoa, in Las Piedras, Beltrán and Torres listened to what sounded like tornados breaking the world outside.

The storm picked up heavy blue cisterns full of water as easily as pieces of paper and threw them around. Generators exploded. Cement posts tumbled.

"The noises were so overwhelming you couldn't sleep," Beltrán says.

"Yeah, the wind was like screaming, 'wheeeee,'" Torres says. Her mother shakes her head.

"No, it was a whistle, high, like 'whiiiiiiiii.'"

Torres kept her 13-year-old Yadiel, 8-year-old, Yadieliz, and Ramsses occupied with board games until they fell asleep, while she stayed up listening to the radio. When Maria finally moved on, Torres left the next day to check on her mom, despite the strong winds outside that pushed her around.

Around the neighborhood, entire houses were gone, but Beltrán and her cousin were safe – Maria took a door and the windows and flooded parts of the house. But Torres' apartment was demolished.

The only things that remained were the cement walls. The roof had blown off. Most of the washer-and-dryer set had disappeared. The microwave was full of water. Her clothes hung on nearby mango trees. The home Torres had built herself at 17 was gone.

Nobody on the U.S. territory had power – Maria had knocked out the island's entire electrical grid. Few people had access to clean water.

The green vegetation that had surrounded Torres' and Beltrán's homes was gone, leaving behind only dead trees and brown grass. The first and second floors of a nearby Catholic church were completely underwater. The storm had left dead cows everywhere. The animals that had survived seemed to be in shock.

Torres' neighbor died of a heart attack after he couldn't get to a hospital – fallen posts and trees blocked the roads connecting Las Piedras to other towns. The insurmountable grief and stress pushed some people to kill themselves.

The Puerto Rican government's official death toll is only 64 people, but multiple media reports suggest the number is actually closer to 1,000 or more dead.

"You saw so much sadness on these kids' faces," Torres says. "Dios mio. I've never even seen something like this on cable news shows – you know, when you see the disasters. The dock I used to take my children fishing was gone. The church I was part of – gone. It's something so painful."

One of Torres' friends was a military officer who was helping clear bodies from a local hospital.

"Don't listen to what the governor is saying on the news," she remembers him telling her. "Find a way to get out of here. This isn't going to get better."

click to enlarge The motel that the Torres family calls home - PHOTO BY JEN CRAY
  • photo by Jen Cray
  • The motel that the Torres family calls home

OCTOBER

Burning a crayon will give you one hour of light.

Torres learned this after vendors in her town jacked up the price of one candle to $9.

Every day after Maria, Torres would go out onto the streets to find food, water and other resources while her mother watched her kids.

People would get up as early as 4 a.m. to stand for hours in miles-long lines for gasoline. You could only get $10 of gas at a time, about five gallons. Fights erupted over line-skipping. People fainted.

At the water line, vendors would sell half-melted bags of ice chips for $2.50. You couldn't complain to anyone, though – all the phone lines were down, leaving the small town totally isolated.

"We didn't even know what was going on with Trump," Desiree said. "You didn't know any news except for what the Red Cross or FEMA told you."

The line to open a case with FEMA was, by far, the worst.

At first, FEMA gave people a phone number to reach its offices, which no one could use. After that didn't work, the agency set up sites around town where people could talk directly to staff – except it didn't tell anyone where the staffers would be, Torres says. People on the streets who figured out where FEMA was set up that day would let everyone else know. One time, Desiree made the 276th spot in line in the park, but she didn't get to file anything because the agency was only registering 100 people at a time.

Finally, she and her mother were able to register with FEMA at a local hospital – they had to give Beltrán a wheelchair because she hurt her back after she slipped while hauling water out of Torres' apartment.

The first time a military helicopter landed in Las Piedras was Oct. 9, almost three weeks after Maria made landfall. Torres remembers the exact day and time because she took a photo.

After that, everyone watched the skies, hoping to see a helicopter packed with food. When Torres spotted one, she would follow it with her car to find where it landed – and so would everybody else in the town.

"Siempre se formaba un revolú," Martha says. "Just a mass of people trying to get food."

When they ran out of their food provisions, they lived off MREs – and when they ran out of those, they picked pana (breadfruit) from trees.

There was no school for the kids to attend. Without trees to encourage breezes, the air around them remained hot and sticky, and Ramsses developed a heat rash. Torres bathed him constantly. When she ran out of water, she would have to stand in line or go over to the next town to find some. Martha remembers her daughter crying every day, frustrated by the daily lines and inaction surrounding them.

"Perdóname, Mamí," Desiree finally told her. "I'm sorry. I can't take it anymore. I have to go."

Desiree tried to get her husband to join her, but he refused.

He had lived in Kissimmee for 10 years and had a rough time of it. He'd slept in his car for several nights in Florida because he was homeless.

"I used to be happy," she says. "My family was complete. I had a partner. But he decided to make his own life over there. It's sad, but what can you do? My kids come first."

Torres found a way out through her job as an airline ramp agent at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Her colleagues there told her the airline had open positions in Orlando and was taking job applications.

Plane tickets to leave Puerto Rico were expensive, but Torres managed to get hers for free, and her cousin got her buddy passes for the kids.

On Oct. 24, they left their home and flew more than 1,000 miles to Orlando International Airport.

As a child in the '90s, Torres had lived in Kissimmee for a short time with her mom and siblings. The sprawling green forests she knew back then had been replaced by suburbs and traffic congestion. Still, there was something in Kissimmee that felt a little like Puerto Rico – the people, the warmth. Maybe one day, this could feel like home, too.

The first day she was here, Torres couldn't get used to the electricity. She kept using her phone as a light source instead of turning on a lamp.

More than a month after Hurricane Maria hit, Torres was finally able to hear her father's voice. She had hoped he was alive but wasn't sure – he lived far away from her on the opposite end of the island.

"Estoy bien," he told her in a voicemail, the only way they could connect. "I'm OK."

click to enlarge Desiree Torres navigates through the web of evacuee resources - PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
  • Desiree Torres navigates through the web of evacuee resources

NOVEMBER, DECEMBER, JANUARY

After a week in Kissimmee, nothing had gone as planned.

Torres was still unemployed. When she tried to apply for a job at the airline, there were no open positions. She was told to apply again in April.

"I was so heartbroken," she says. "I cried when I found out. That was my dream job. It still is."

She and her three children were staying with relatives in cramped quarters. We are like sausages in a can, she thought.

"We had to go," Torres says. "You know what they say: El muerto y el arrimado a los tres días apesta." (The dead and guests stink after three days.)

Torres had heard at the airport assistance center about hotel vouchers FEMA was offering to hurricane evacuees from Puerto Rico. She looked for the cleanest-looking hotel she could find on Highway 192 and chose the Super 8. At one point, at least 60 families that had evacuated from Puerto Rico lived in that motel – Torres knew because she'd helped staff deliver letters to the families from the federal agency.

When they moved in on Nov. 7, Torres and the children were given a suite with two bedrooms but no kitchen. She would make hot dogs and white rice in the microwave for Yadiel and Yadieliz after they came home from school on the bus. She didn't have a car, so she would put Ramsses in his stroller and take the bus to the store – it took an hour to get to the Walmart five miles away. Torres didn't have enough money for the coin laundry, either, so she'd wash their clothes in the bathtub and hang them on the window to dry.

Things started to change when they were moved into a suite with a kitchen, which gave Torres an idea. While she looked for a job and daycare for Ramsses, she could make some side money by cooking for the other evacuees in the hotel.

The first time, she fried some empanadillas and left her motel door open. Sure enough, she attracted some clients and sold her savory turnovers at two for $5. Then she expanded her menu to include fried pork chunks and tostones as a lunch platter. Motel staff, though, quickly caught wind of her operation and forced Torres to shut down.

But Torres loved to cook and would do it for free for her motel neighbors. They formed a little community of sorts by sharing groceries they bought. In December, the evacuees in the motel decided to have their first Puerto Rican Christmas in Kissimmee. Torres was in charge of bringing the macaroni salad. Everyone hauled out their small tables and pushed them together in the parking lot to have a feast. Even though it was not even close to the big celebrations they had at home, they had a good time laughing and taking photos.

For some, it was the last time they'd be together.

"Mira estas dos," Torres says, pointing to a picture with two women smiling next to her. "They had to go back to Puerto Rico after FEMA didn't approve them. It's hard. Not everybody can make it here."

The evacuees could never figure out why FEMA approved some cases and threw others out, but they suspected it had something to do with whether electricity and water was running at their home. A spokesperson for FEMA says there are several reasons why a survivor is not eligible for continued TSA assistance, including: if survivors' homes did not have enough damage to affect habitability and their utilities are working; if survivors are staying with friends and families; if survivors' utilities were on at the time of inspection; and if they are not "progressing" on their long-term housing solution. FEMA officials say that as of March 19, 3,433 applicants from Puerto Rico were staying under the TSA program in 36 states and the island, including 1,256 applicants in Florida. In January, FEMA reported 4,322 families were being housed under the program, including 1,794 in Florida.

Torres' mother, Beltrán, got her power back 96 days after the storm, but it would still go out sporadically and for long periods of time. The federal agency had also given Beltrán a little over $500 to repair her house.

At the beginning of January, FEMA told Torres she had to leave by Jan. 13 – the same day Ramsses turned 2. She pleaded for an extension but couldn't get one. (FEMA has only said it extends cases on a "case-by-case" basis.) She thought about begging her mother to buy her a plane ticket back to Puerto Rico.

"What would you do if you had three kids?" she asks. "You're thinking about what you're going to do, where you're going to stay. It's a moment of desperation. How would other people react if someone told them they had to leave, and they had nowhere to go?"

On her last day, Desiree decided to make Ramsses' birthday special. She bought him a small cake with two thin candles and 12 blue cupcakes. They sat him on the kitchen table and all the motel kids sang to him. Usually a force of nature, Ramsses managed to sit still enough for Desiree to take his photo.

At the last minute, FEMA approved Torres and her family for another month – this time until Feb. 14.

click to enlarge Desiree Torres serves her friends a traditional Puerto Rican meal - PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
  • Desiree Torres serves her friends a traditional Puerto Rican meal

FEBRUARY

On a warm February night, you could smell Torres' kitchen all the way down the street.

On one side of her small motel stove, she was making fried adobo-marinated pork chops in a small pan. In the back, she had sautéed homemade sofrito with hot dogs, red beans and potatoes to make habichuelas guisadas. Toward the front, she was perfecting her white rice by drawing out extra moisture with hamburger buns. In a repurposed plastic Publix cream cheese container, she mixed her secret garlic dressing for the salad.

Things finally seemed like they were turning around.

Yadiel offered to stay home from school to watch Ramsses so Torres could go to a job interview at a cleaning company, but she found a babysitter. The interviewer told her she had too much experience to just be a housekeeper – she could be a supervisor. The job was cleaning large, apartment-style villas at the Wyndham Cypress Palms, in front of the big orange-shaped tourist shop in Kissimmee. The pay was minimal – $26 to clean one large villa, $22 to clean the medium villa and $13 for a small villa.

Torres didn't have a car yet, so she'd have to take the bus. And FEMA had extended her voucher until March 20.

Still, she had enough energy left to cook 16 meals for her family, her neighbors and a gay couple who had recently moved out of the motel. John Cruz and Johny Luciano Otero had gotten jobs as soon as they came to Kissimmee from Puerto Rico but could never keep them – the Lynx bus system couldn't take them all the way to work. By a stroke of luck, they were able to get $13-per-hour jobs at Disney World and buy a car.

Torres made them lunches to take home while they played with the next-door kids, who came to hang out in her apartment while they waited for food.

"Some of these kids don't eat habichuelas at their house," Torres said proudly. "But they'll eat mine."

The next day, Torres got up early to tackle a pending problem.

She sat down with a large accordion binder and pink notebook filled with documents, forms, notes and business cards from different Florida agencies. Torres struggled to pull the packed binder out from under the coffee table.

"They throw a lot of information at you at the disaster center inside the Orlando airport, but they don't really tell you what it means," she said.

She'd signed up for the WIC program but was also trying to get SNAP benefits. Officials at both the Florida Department of Children and Families and CareerSource told her that to get SNAP, she had to sign up for an employment and training program at Employ Florida and complete about 80 hours per month of "work activity hours," such as paid work or volunteering.

She managed to fill out most of the information on her cellphone – she couldn't fill out forms at the CareerSource office because they wouldn't allow kids inside, according to Torres. But the state website was rudimentary and confusing even for Torres, who speaks English. On the phone, she grappled for hours, switching between case managers at DCF and CareerSource to figure out the problem. She watched a mandatory introduction video twice – the first time, the video froze, so she had to start over.

"Give me a moment," she said at one point. "I need a break."

She lit a cigarette and sat in an armchair she had moved outside. Later, Torres would learn she didn't have to sign up for Employ Florida at all – that requirement only applies to adults without children under 18.

"There's no clear path," she said. "They just give you papers and papers and papers and papers. There's so many people coming here with depression from Puerto Rico, and now we're in another depression here."

Torres was still on the phone with case managers at 2 p.m. when Yadiel came home.

"Mai, I got a good grade on my test," he said.

"That's good, mi amor," Torres said, distractedly looking down at her papers. Suddenly, she stopped.

"I'm sorry, mi cielo," she told him. "It's just – mom is trying to do something. Good job at school."

On Feb. 28, Torres turned 31. She didn't have a party, like she would have done in Puerto Rico with her family and friends. She felt homesick, but she didn't want to go back.

"I would love to return," she says. "I would love to be with my island. But even though I'm going through so many situations here, I don't want to go back. I feel calm here. I don't have that stress I used to have in Puerto Rico."

click to enlarge Martha Beltrán - PHOTO BY JEN CRAY
  • Photo by Jen Cray
  • Martha Beltrán

MARCH

More than a hundred days of darkness had adjusted Beltrán's eyes. She could feel her way through her pitch-black house in Las Piedras and now, through the shade of Torres' motel suite.

"The lights still go out all the time," she says. "When they do, I just laugh and laugh and laugh. I have already gotten used to it. Now I just go to sleep when it happens."

Beltrán had come over in February to babysit Ramsses while Torres worked at the Wyndham Cypress Palms.

The work was tough there. In a 1,196-square-foot two-bedroom villa, Desiree had to clean every dish, spoon and fork until they shone; wash the sheets of four beds, including the sofa bed; clean two toilets, a bathtub and a Jacuzzi; dust the living room; and make sure the entire place was spotless – for $26.

It took hours to clean a villa, which meant Desiree could make about $52 in a day, or an hourly rate of $6.50. After work, her whole body ached. One day, her supervisors asked her to stay late to clean an extra villa, and she missed her bus. The next time they asked her to stay extra time, Torres thanked them for the opportunity and quit.

Torres was discouraged. She didn't have a job anymore. And her mother wanted to go back to Puerto Rico as soon as possible. Torres didn't like to talk about the life she had left behind, but for Beltrán, it was a constant topic.

"I'm here, but my mind is over there," Beltrán says. "I left my house alone, without a door, and all my things there, broken, but they're mine. I'm alive. I've got my family. I will rise again. To me, Puerto Rico is a country of liberty."

Still, Torres remained a positive light among her friends.

"My motivation is my kids," she says. "Not everything in this life that's good comes easy. You have to struggle and sacrifice to achieve results. It doesn't happen overnight."

In a short time, Torres got another job – this time as a maintenance worker for the construction company building the Star Wars park at Disney. Pay started at $9.50 per hour.

One weekend, the family went to a car dealership. For months, Torres had been riding the bus to the supermarket, riding the bus to CareerSource, riding the bus to work. The white hatchback she was eyeing would make her day-to-day life easier. But it was a big payment for just herself. It would also tie Torres and her kids permanently to the mainland. There would be no returning to Puerto Rico for some time.

"Over there, there's no future for these kids," Beltrán told Torres. "Fight and stay."

Her mother's words continued to echo as she signed the papers on a new lease for opportunity.

"Lucha y quédate." mcordeiro@orlandoweekly.com

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