Three unbearable weeks passed before Tyrone Torres could finally talk to his three children in Puerto Rico.
After Hurricane Maria tore through his home country on Sept. 20, the 31-year-old Hilton Head Island man sat awake at night wondering about the state of his family.
“It was terrible for me because I was here and they were living in that struggle,” Torres said. “I was depressed because I didn’t know what happened to them. I was just watching the local news, getting the little bit of information I could.”
When Torres finally talked with his family and children, the news was a mix of good and bad: His family was safe, but they had lost everything — the house, clothes and all their appliances.
Torres, who had been living and working on Hilton Head for the last two years, did not hesitate to tell his children and his children’s mother, Leishka Quiñones, to come live with him.
“The damage is so bad they estimate the recovery could last for years,” Torres said. “They’re talking no water, no power. I don’t want our kids involved in that kind of environment, so I told her (Quiñones), if they’re ready to move, then come. I don’t think that’s right for them to stay.”
Quiñones and their children lived in a wooden home along the coast. Knowing the potential for destruction headed their way, they evacuated to a family member’s cement home in the mountains.
After the Category 4 storm, which brought maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and 30 inches of rain in one day to parts of the country, had passed, Quiñones returned to their home to find the roof blown off in various rooms, electric lines down in their backyard, and all of their clothes and appliances destroyed.
They spent 18 days without power, and nearly 30 days passed before their hometown in the country’s northwest section, called Camuy, received any supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross, Torres said.
New life on Hilton Head ‘a blessing’
Two weeks ago, Quiñones, 25, and their three children — Tymary, 7; Byron, 6; and Tashary, 5 — fled their home in Puerto Rico, got tickets to Orlando and quickly resettled on Hilton Head.
After nearly eight weeks without school, the three were finally enrolled in Hilton Head Elementary last week.
Although the circumstances aren’t ideal, Torres said being reunited with his children is “a blessing”.
Because of high unemployment in Puerto Rico, Torres said he moved to Hilton Head after a friend called him to tell him about job opportunities on the island. He has spent the last two years working his way up in different jobs and earning more money to send back home to his family.
Quiñones and their three children don’t speak English. They left behind their family, friends and everything they knew. The family is currently sharing a small two-bedroom mobile home on the island.
Still, they appear optimistic.
“This is something that I’ve wanted for a long time,” Torres said. “I’ve been spending holidays alone, but now I have my family with me. From bad things happening, good things happen too. That’s the way I see it. Now we’re going to try to figure it out and work it out together.”
Exodus to the Lowcountry?
Torres and his family are part of an ongoing exodus since the hurricane of tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans.
More than 160,000 Puerto Ricans have flown or sailed to Florida to escape the destruction. Between Oct. 2 and Oct. 24, nearly 45,000 arrived in central Florida, and an additional 100,000 are booked on flights to Orlando through Dec. 31, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Many of the evacuees are tapping their networks of family and friends when they arrive on the mainland U.S.
According to Jim Foster, Beaufort County School District spokesman, 11 children have enrolled in the district as a result of this year’s three major hurricanes—Maria, Irma and Harvey.
Gustavo Gomez, founder of the nonprofit organization Lowcountry Area Hurricane Relief for Puerto Rico and Caribbean, believes the evacuees won’t all stay in Florida.
“We might not have a huge (Puerto Rican) community right now, but it’s going to get bigger — not because they want to move here, but because they have to,” he said. “Orlando is overflowing with Puerto Ricans, but it’s a city and many Puerto Ricans don’t like that. They like the countryside, so they’re going to go looking for the country — the Lowcountry.”
Gomez, a retired U.S. Marine living in Bluffton, was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Two days after the Hurricane Maria hit the island, Gomez set up his nonprofit organization.
“I was sitting there watching the news and thought, ‘Man, there’s nothing I could do from over there, but I know there’s something I have to do here,’” he said.
Over the last month or so, the nonprofit has collected nearly 25,000 pounds of supplies, Gomez said. Then, last week, the organization partnered another nonprofit to help get the items down to Miami and shipped via cargo container to Puerto Rico.
Now, Gomez says, he’s focusing on the Puerto Ricans arriving in the Lowcountry and trying to make sure the community is ready.
In Orlando, local officials and nonprofit groups are already concerned about a scarcity of affordable housing, overcrowding of schools, and a need for more bilingual teachers. Gomez said he’s hoping those in the Lowcountry will start addressing the needs proactively.
“It’s going to affect everyone, even if they might not think it is,” he said. “But they (community members) are going to start acting when their kid’s school gets overpopulated or when they have to modify their lifestyle because all these people are coming in.
“You can’t ignore it. You can’t blame them. They’re U.S. citizens; they’re not immigrants; they’re not criminals; they’re just trying to find a better life.”
Want to help?
The Lowcountry Area Hurricane Relief for Puerto Rico and Caribbean is looking for an attorney and accountant who will offer free services.
To donate to the organization visit https://lahrprc.org/
If you’d like to help Torres and his family, contact Gomez at firstname.lastname@example.org