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


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."

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