February 5, 2018 at 6:00 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Puerto Rico hairdresser, family struggle to survive after Maria

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)

HUMACAO, Puerto Rico — Ricky Santiago was with his parents and his aunt in the second floor of his family’s house in the Candelero Arriba neighborhood of the Puerto Rican city of Humacao during Hurricane Maria.

The hurricane had 155 mph winds when it made landfall near Humacao, which is on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast, on Sept. 20. Maria seriously damaged the roof and walls of the second floor of Santiago’s family’s house and destroyed his small hair salon that was in the backyard.

“It was a monster that came,” said Santiago on Feb. 1 as he spoke with the Washington Blade while sitting in a plastic chair in a small patio that is in front of the house. “It took everything.”

Santiago, 53, and his family are among the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who still have no electricity nearly five months after Maria.

Santiago and his family lost electricity during Hurricane Irma, which brushed Puerto Rico on Sept. 7, but utility crews restored it before Maria. Santiago told the Blade that water currently “comes and goes.”

Santiago lived on the house’s second floor before Maria.

A blue tarp has been placed over it, but damaged walls and windows have not been repaired. Santiago is now living on the first floor with his parents and aunt.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has given Santiago $6,000 to rebuild his salon, which it considers an extension of his family’s house. Santiago has begun to replace the roof, but debris and everyday items remain scattered across the floor and the yard. These include an old Bible that had been placed onto a small table near the entrance to what was once the salon’s bathroom.

“Everything that we worked for is gone, but we move forward,” Santiago told the Blade. “The most important thing is that we are alive.”

Santiago also said nobody in his neighborhood died during Maria.

The Puerto Rican government says Maria killed 64 people in the U.S. commonwealth, but the death toll is estimated to be more than 1,000. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in December ordered a review of the official figure.

Santiago is caretaker for bedridden father

Santiago, who is gay, said the clients that he had before Maria were from Humacao, the nearby towns of Yabucoa and Las Piedras and “from everywhere.” Santiago also told the Blade that he has been “accepted well” by his family.

Santiago’s father has been bedridden for 13 years. Santiago, his mother and aunt are among his caretakers.

Rev. Julie Johnson Staples, executive director of Intersections International, a New York-based LGBT-affirming ministry, on Feb. 1 offered Santiago’s father communion.

Santiago’s mother, aunt and his friend stood next to Santiago’s father’s bed as Staples led them in prayer. Grissel Bonilla, co-founder of Waves Ahead, an organization that is providing assistance to Santiago and other LGBT Puerto Ricans after Maria, and this reporter also joined Staples, Marcia Fingal of Intersections International and Santiago’s family inside the stifling bedroom that is located off the first floor kitchen.

Staples later spoke with Santiago as they stood on a portion of the second floor that has no walls or roof. Santiago began to cry as he and Staples embraced.

Rev. Julie Johnson Staples, executive director of Intersections International, an LGBT-affirming ministry in New York, embraces Ricky Santiago on the damaged second floor of his family’s house in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 1, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Santiago told the Blade his mother and he cry a lot after Maria. He also said his family is suffering from depression.

‘Five months have passed without light’

Santiago said local officials gave his family some food after Maria.

A new utility pole that replaced one the hurricane destroyed is across the street from his family’s house.

Santiago’s aunt said electricity was restored to an elementary school that is down the hill from the house a couple of weeks ago. School children were playing in its playground when she and this reporter walked up the street to a small church.

Santiago told the Blade the only assistance his family has received from the federal government is the $6,000 FEMA check. He said the only thing he, his parents and aunt want is to have their electricity restored.

“Five months have passed without light,” Santiago told the Blade.

Damage and debris from Hurricane Maria remains on a beach in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 1, 2018. The beach is located less than 10 miles south of the city of Humacao in southeastern Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria made landfall in the area on Sept. 20 with winds of 155 mph. (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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