May 29, 2018 at 12:34 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Gay Puerto Rico hairdresser rebuilding hurricane-ravaged home, salon

Ricky Santiago sits in his salon in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on May 26, 2018. Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBT Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups recover from Hurricane Maria, is working with Santiago and his family. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Editor’s note: Washington Blade International News Editor Michael K. Lavers was in Puerto Rico from May 24-28 to volunteer with Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBT Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups recover from Hurricane Maria.

HUMACAO, Puerto Rico — A gay hairdresser in Puerto Rico who the Washington Blade profiled earlier this year says the situation for him and his family has improved “a lot” since electricity was restored at their home.

“They are happier,” Ricky Santiago told the Blade on May 25 during an interview at his family’s home in the Candelero Arriba neighborhood of Humacao, a city on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast that is less than an hour’s drive from the island’s capital of San Juan. “They have changed little by little like me.”

Hurricane Maria made landfall near Humacao on Sept. 20, 2017, with 155 mph winds.

Maria caused extensive damage to the second floor of Santiago’s family’s house in which he was living. Maria also destroyed Santiago’s hair salon that was in the backyard.

Ricky Santiago stands outside the second floor of his family’s house in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 1, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Electricity was restored to Santiago’s home on March 31. Santiago laughed when he pointed out electricity was restored at his sister’s home in a nearby neighborhood the day before he spoke with the Blade.

“She came here like a crazy woman and said, ‘I have power! I have power, after eight months,” he recalled.

Handwritten signs the Blade saw throughout Humacao over the weekend indicate people still do not have electricity more than eight months after Maria made landfall. Damaged utility poles and houses with temporary roofs — blue tarps or “techos azules” in Puerto Rican Spanish — remain commonplace throughout Santiago’s neighborhood.

The Puerto Rican government says Maria killed 64 people on the island, but estimates indicate the death toll is likely much higher.

The New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday reported researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, the University of Colorado School of Medicine and other institutions have concluded Maria may have killed an estimated 4,645 people. The New England Journal of Medicine reported researchers have concluded the “interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates” in the three months after the hurricane made landfall.

Santiago using FEMA money to repair family’s house

Santiago is currently living with his mother, his father who has been bedridden for 15 years, two of his aunts and three Chihuahuas on the first floor of the family’s house. Santiago sleeps on a twin size mattress that he places on the living room floor each night.

Santiago received $6,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair his family’s house and salon, which FEMA determined was part of his home. FEMA denied Santiago’s mother’s request for assistance because it concluded Maria did not damage the first floor of the house that it determined is her home, even though water caused extensive damage to the concrete ceiling after portions of the second floor’s roof blew away.

Exposed rebar in the living room ceiling remains clearly visible.

Santiago and his mother used the money he received from FEMA to remove what was left of the house’s second floor and seal the floor to prevent water from seeping through the ceiling. They have also painted the walls and repaired the gutters in order to reduce the risk of flooding.

“It’s going well,” Santiago told the Blade on Friday. “We have power and the water is going well.”

Santiago has turned a covered patio along the side of his family’s house into his salon. Santiago is converting the building in which his salon was located before Maria into his new home.

Waves Ahead, San Juan mayor to open LGBT elders center

Waves Ahead earlier this month launched ReconstruyeQ, a campaign that is helping Santiago’s family and nine other families in the U.S. commonwealth repair their homes and replace furniture and other items they lost during the storm. Waves Ahead is also working with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and her administration to open a community center for LGBT elders.

Wilfred Labiosa and Grissel Bonilla, who co-founded Waves Ahead, met with Cruz on May 23. Human Rights Campaign Foundation Director of Faith Outreach and Training Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, who grew up in the city of Caguas that is located outside of San Juan, is among those who also attended the meeting.

“An agreement to collaborate with the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan to secure a restored location in the city that will serve as a base for the first community center for Puerto Rico’s older LGBT community was discussed,” said Cruz in a press release, according to Primera Hora, a Puerto Rican newspaper.

Ricky Santiago and Rev. Julie Johnson Staples, executive director of Intersections International, a New York-based LGBT-affirming ministry, stand inside what was once Santiago’s hair salon in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 1, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Waves Ahead posted to its Twitter account pictures of the meeting with Cruz.

Help from Waves Ahead, volunteers ‘tremendous’

Construction crews earlier this month installed a new roof on Santiago’s new home.

Santiago over the Memorial Day weekend helped volunteers from the Human Rights Campaign and other groups paint the walls. Waves Ahead and its volunteers also bought Santiago a new bed, a dining room table and chairs, a medicine cabinet and shelves.

Waves Ahead volunteers with Ricky Santiago, first row, fourth from left, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on May 25, 2018. Waves Ahead is helping Santiago and his family repair their home that Hurricane Maria damaged. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Santiago told the Blade he hopes to be able to move into his new home in the coming days.

He said Waves Ahead and the volunteers who have helped him and his family have been “tremendous.” Santiago became emotional as he talked with the Blade about the assistance that he and his family have received.

“It is an experience that I will have in my heart until I die,” he told the Blade.

Santiago’s mother on Sunday said as she sat in her living room with two of Santiago’s aunts and two of the family’s three Chihuahuas that Santiago would have “nothing” if Waves Ahead and its volunteers were not helping him.

The mattress on which Santiago is sleeping was along one of the walls and his clothes were draped over the top of it as she spoke with the Blade. One of Santiago’s aunts on May 26 began to cry as she talked her family’s experience during Maria.

Hurricane season begins on Friday.

Many structures in La Perla neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, still have temporary roofs — “techos azules” in Spanish — more than eight months after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. commonwealth. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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