As It Happens·Q&A

'We are suffering,' says Puerto Rican man trying to help after Hurricane Fiona

As the rain keeps falling on Puerto Rico, causing extreme flooding and starting landslides, San Juan lawyer Obed Rojas can’t think of leaving the island. He just wants to help his people.

The hurricane has caused widespread flooding and power outages in Puerto Rico

People inside a house await rescue from the floods caused by Hurricane Fiona in Cayey, Puerto Rico, on Sunday. (Stephanie Rojas/The Associated Press)
As the rain keeps falling on Puerto Rico, causing extreme flooding and starting landslides, San Juan lawyer Obed Rojas says he can't think of leaving the island. He told As It Happens host Nil Köksal that just wants to help his people.

As the rain keeps falling on Puerto Rico, causing extreme flooding and starting landslides, San Juan lawyer Obed Rojas says he can't think of leaving the island. He just wants to help his people.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, which made landfall on Sunday, the island is still largely without electricity. Many homes, already left with fragile infrastructure after 2017's Hurricane Maria, are devastated. Thousands of people in Puerto Rico, an unincorporated U.S. territory, had to be rescued from their homes.

Rojas is a consultant for lawmakers at the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

I know you've been out since 4 o'clock this morning trying to help people. What is the aftermath like from your vantage point? What are you seeing and hearing?

It's different [from] Hurricane Maria, because in Maria, there was a lot of wind. Here, now, there is a lot of flooding. 

I went to the south and the flooding and all the trees and the landslides, they were very, very heavy over there. Now I'm back in San Juan. Here, most of the people don't have electric power [and] we're dealing with generators. But in the south and in the west, it was horrible.

I understand you've been trying to help the family of one man who died of a heart attack during the storm. Can you tell us what you saw when you went to their house today?

There was this family that lost many of its members. And we were helping them so the National Guard could take out the body ... from the house. And it was like a mission because to head to their houses, you have to cross a river. So it was crazy. 

In Salinas, the National Guard had to rescue over a thousand people that were stuck in the middle of two rivers. So their houses were flooded and they had to rescue them [from] their second-storey homes.

Most of the people, the poor people here on the island, they were not ready for these tropical storms.

I wanted to ask you about that, because I am reading that this caught a lot of people off guard, that they were surprised. Why weren't there more warnings from the government that this was coming?

All the news and stuff said that it was going to pass through the south of the island, and not that it wasn't going to hit the island … [but that] we're just going to get some water. But the hurricane made a U-turn and then the eye of the hurricane passed through four municipalities here in Puerto Rico.

We were ready for rain and we were ready for some wind, but not as [much as] what we've received. And the thing is ... most of the people in the metro area, in San Juan, they were ready, you know, because their houses are concrete…. But in the south and in the centre of the island, there are a lot of people with houses [made of] wood. So those people, even though they were ready … they suffered. 

A man stands at a gate with water up to his mid-shins.
A woman clears debris on her property flooded by Hurricane Fiona in Salinas, Puerto Rico, on Monday. (Alejandro Granadillo/The Associated Press)

And I understand it's still raining there. So how are people coping with all of that flooding and without power?

We have like four or five hours more of rain. So the government is trying to get all the people out.... But elderly people don't want to get out of their homes and then they get stuck and take a risk. It's hard. 

Most of the island doesn't have ... electric power. But right now [the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] and LUMA, that is a private company of electricity here in Puerto Rico, they're trying to at least get energy for the hospitals and the elderly living in shelters. So we're working on that.

It is hard but, you know, the government and the municipalities are all working together.

And people are still trying to recover from Maria. And let's take our listeners back to 2017. More than 3,000 people were killed in that storm. And today, thousands of people are still living under tarps instead of a proper roof. So what are you hearing from people about how they're feeling about the federal government's response and the lack of rebuilding?

They are devastated. 

There's a lot of concern because the federal government … allocated the money, but they dispersed the money to the municipalities and to the government to rebuild, and it's going step-by-step.

But the federal government is not putting the money in the streets. Yes, they allocated this amount of money, but we're not seeing it. And there was a hearing in the United States Congress and [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] accepted that the process has been very slow for different reasons.

I don't want to blame no one, but at the end, the people who suffer are the people here on the island.

A man who was evacuated from his home embraces a girl in the classroom of a public school converted into a shelter as Hurricane Fiona and its heavy rains approaches in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. (Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters)

Many Puerto Ricans did leave the island after Maria. I wondered about you personally. Have you ever thought about leaving?

I have my family here. And after Maria, I was in the States sometimes. But, you know, it's different because I'm an attorney, so I have the privilege to go and practice law in the States. 

But there's a lot of people here on the island, most of them young professionals that don't see chances or anything that could stop them from leaving. 

Puerto Rico, it has been growing. The demographic here is a lot of elderly people. And the young people just graduated from school and then went to the States because they got profitable jobs over there and stuff. So, you know, in my case, I did it. I went. I worked. But my wife, she got a job here and then we [came] back here to the island. 

I'm not going to tell you that I'm not going to go out of the island. But right now I'm not thinking of leaving. I just want to help my people.

I can hear the adrenaline, the breathlessness, in your voice…. How does it feel to see your country in this place, in this devastation again?

It's sad. You know, we are suffering.

My kids are four and two years old. And, you know, they don't understand why they don't have power and energy in our house, or why their dad has to go to help people. 

There's a lot of people, elderly people, that you have to help, [whose] family are not living here. They are in the States, so you have to help them. And they're people that, you know, their mental health is very difficult. You know, it's hard even to explain because you get frustrated. It's hard.

And you have a generator, as I understand it. But still, the next few days…. What are they going to be like for you?

We have ... to the gas station and try to [go] 12 hours with light, 12 without. Most of the time it is at night that you put on the generator.

On my island, we are people that are, you know, we have a lot of faith and we are hardworking … so I know we will get up and we will fight like we did in Maria.

Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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