February 1, 2018 at 10:06 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
LGBT activists bring relief supplies to hurricane-ravaged Vieques

Grissel Bonilla, co-founder of Waves Ahead, sits with Marciana Encarnación Caraballo, 101, at her home in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 31, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico — Marciana Encarnación Caraballo, 101, lives alone in her house that overlooks Isabel Segunda, one of the two main population centers on the island of Vieques, and the Puerto Rican mainland.

She fell and nearly broke her leg in August 2016 while she was trying to close her bedroom window. Encarnación was still in serious pain when Hurricane Maria ravaged Vieques on Sept. 20.

Encarnación did not have electricity for more than three months after Maria. She also tried to take her life in October by refusing to eat the food and drink the water that neighbors had left for her outside her front door.

Encarnación on Wednesday was lying on a couch on her front porch when Manuel Silva, a lifelong Vieques resident, arrived with Wilfred Labiosa and Grissel Bonilla, co-founders of Waves Ahead, an organization that has provided assistance to LGBT Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups after Maria. Rev. Julie Johnson Staples, executive director of Intersections International, a New York-based ministry that is LGBT-affirming, and two of her group’s members, Marcia Fingal and Christine Nelson, were also with them.

Silva, Labiosa, Bonilla, Staples, Fingal and Nelson gave Encarnación water, a carton of eggs, packages of sliced ham and cheese, adult diapers, boxes of Ensure, toiletries and bed covers. Staples gave Encarnación communion and led the group, which also included this reporter, in prayer.

“I want to die here,” Encarnación told Labiosa and Silva as they sat next to her on her couch.

Maria was a ‘monster’

Vieques is roughly eight miles off Puerto Rico’s east coast. The island had more than 9,000 year-round residents before Maria.

The U.S. Navy in the 1940s forcibly removed Encarnación and other Vieques residents from their homes and relocated them when it turned the island into a bombing range. Vieques has become an increasingly popular place for LGBT vacationers and second-homeowners since the Navy left the island in 2003.

A gay couple from Boston who owns a house near the center of Isabel Segunda has allowed Waves Ahead to use it as a makeshift warehouse and staging area for their relief efforts on the island. Silva is one of several Vieques residents who volunteer for Waves Ahead.

Silva told the Washington Blade as Labiosa, Bonilla, Staples, Fingal and Nelson placed adult diapers and bed covers into bags at the house that he was on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands when Hurricane Hugo devastated the island.

“It was a horrible experience,” said Silva. “I couldn’t believe it could be worse.”

Silva described Hurricane Irma, which brushed Vieques and Puerto Rico on Sept. 7, as a “little breeze.”

He said Maria’s winds kept blowing open the back door of his family’s small concrete house that is located just outside the center of Isabel Segunda. Silva told the Blade he fought with his older brother, who suffers from dementia, during the hurricane because he wanted to stay by the window in his bedroom that is in the front of the house.

“I went there to fight with him to bring him to the living room,” said Silva, who also told the Blade that wind gusts of up to 200 mph were shaking the concrete walls. “When I brought him to the living room, the door opened in the back and there I went to fight with the door.”

“Maria was a monster,” he added.

Staples gave communion to Silva’s older brother in his bedroom as he, another brother, Bonilla, Nelson, Fingal, a caretaker and this reporter watched. The Silva brothers then gathered around their brother’s bed and Staples led them in prayer.

Many of the Vieques residents to whom Waves Ahead brought food and supplies on Wednesday still do not have electricity. These include Paula, a 98-year-old woman who offered the group coffee that she was making on a gas stove in her kitchen.

Grissel Bonilla, co-founder of Waves Ahead, an organization that has provided assistance to LGBT Puerto Ricans and people with HIV/AIDS after Hurricane Maria, drives her car under a damaged utility pole in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 31, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A utility pole was resting on power lines outside the home of Iluminada, an 86-year-old woman who was born on the island of St. Kitts. A pile of debris that was along the side of the road in front of her house was several feet high.

Waves Ahead brought water to Iluminada’s neighbors and left supplies for the pastor of her church, which is less than a block away. Iluminada also prayed with Staples and Fingal on her porch.

A woman who was a cook at a school in Vieques for 29 years said coconut cakes are one of her favorite things to bake. She then joked as she stood next to her husband, who is deaf, on the porch of their house that there are no coconuts on the island because Maria destroyed all of the coconut trees.

The group a few minutes later gave crayons to a young girl who lives with her family in Isabel Segunda. She was playing with a Chihuahua as Bonilla spoke with one of her relatives and others brought food and toiletries to a couple who lives next door.

Maria flooded the girl’s house and mold continues to grow inside of it. Her family is sleeping on mattresses that have been placed on the floor.

The girl’s mother attempted to take her own life after Maria by setting herself on fire. Her boyfriend is an intravenous drug user.

New Vieques group promotes hurricane preparedness

Edgardo Rosario Rentas was the welcome desk manager at the W Vieques Retreat and Spa before Maria. He and roughly 150 other people have lost their jobs because the resort will remain closed through the end of 2018.

Rosario is the co-founder of Vieques Ready, an organization that seeks to teach the island’s residents “to ready and prepare themselves before a storm, be able to survive during a storm and have the knowledge, ability and assistance to remain alive after a disaster strikes.”

Vieques Ready hopes to create an LGBT-friendly “neighborhood-based system” of solar-powered homes that will have satellite phones, radios, nonperishable foods, medical supplies and access to refrigerators and washing machines if there is a prolonged power outage. Each home in the system will also be able to shelter up to 30 people during a hurricane and up to a month afterwards.

A Vieques resident who lives in the hills above Isabel Segunda has allowed Vieques Ready to use the first floor of her house in exchange for the installation of solar panels on her roof. Construction is scheduled to be finished in a few weeks.

“What we are trying to do is prepare people for all that, to have the necessary supplies to stay alive after the storm and trying to keep their families in one piece and their houses in one piece if possible,” Rosario told the Blade as he stood in the foyer of the house that Waves Ahead uses as its staging area.

‘She is my mom’

Encarnación was largely bedridden and living in her own waste when Labiosa and Grissel first met her in December. Encarnación’s electricity had yet to be restored, and she was also living in hoarding conditions.

Waves Ahead cleaned her house, and the woman who cleans it also brings her food. Utility crews restored Encarnación’s power last month.

Silva on Wednesday bought Encarnación a pack of cigarettes. Encarnación complained the cigarettes were not the brand that she prefers to smoke, but she nevertheless began to smoke one of them before the Waves Ahead group left her home.

“She is my mom,” said Silva.

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

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