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

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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."

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