April 10, 2018 at 2:40 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Power restored to gay Puerto Rico hairdresser’s hurricane-damaged home

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)

A gay hairdresser in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico who the Washington Blade profiled in February has had electricity restored to his home.

Electricity was restored to the house in which Ricky Santiago and his family live in the Candelero Arriba neighborhood of the city of Humacao on March 31.

Wilfred Labiosa, co-founder of Waves Ahead, an organization that is providing assistance to Santiago and other LGBT Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria, told the Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview from the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan that the electricity “comes and goes.” Labiosa also said the water pressure inside Santiago’s home remains low.

“The power was restored, but it’s still sporadic,” Labiosa told the Blade. “The water issue is still very thin.”

Maria made landfall near Humacao, which is on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast, on Sept. 20, 2017, with sustained winds of 155 mph.

The hurricane seriously damaged the roof and walls of the second floor of Santiago’s family’s house in which he lived. It also destroyed the small hair salon that was in the backyard.

“It was a monster that came,” Santiago told the Blade on Feb. 1. “It took everything.”

Santiago and his family were among the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who still did not have electricity when the Blade reported from Puerto Rico from Jan. 29-Feb. 3. Media reports indicate more than 50,000 people in the U.S. commonwealth still do not electricity more than six months after Maria.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave Santiago $6,000 to rebuild his family’s house and his salon, which FEMA determined was part of his home. Labiosa told the Blade that Santiago’s mother did not receive any money from FEMA because it concluded her home — the first floor of her family’s house — “wasn’t damaged.”

Labiosa said Santiago’s family has decided not to rebuild the second floor of their house. Labiosa told the Blade that Santiago is working with his nieces and their neighbors to flatten the roof and seal it with cement.

Labiosa said Santiago and his mother have decided to use the FEMA money to repair the roof, paint the inside and outside of their house and fix the gutters in order to reduce the risk of flooding from rainwater that runs down the hillside on which the family’s neighborhood is located.

Intersections International, a New York-based LGBT-affirming ministry, donated a bed to Santiago’s mother. Waves Ahead is also working to provide new mattresses and appliances to Santiago and his family.

The air conditioner in Santiago’s bedridden father’s bedroom did not work after the electricity was restored because water damaged it during Maria. Santiago’s family has placed fans in the bedroom, but Waves Ahead is working with them to replace the damaged air conditioner.

“It’s very sad,” Labiosa told the Blade.

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)

LGBT group launches rebuilding campaign

Waves Ahead has launched a campaign that is designed to help LGBT Puerto Ricans and others who were directly affected by Maria and Hurricane Irma, which brushed the island on Sept. 7, 2017, rebuild their lives.

The campaign will help Santiago’s family and nine other families across Puerto Rico repair their hurricane-damaged homes and help replace furniture and other items that Maria and Irma destroyed.

The Human Rights Campaign, PFLAG, Advocates for Youth and Intersections International are sponsoring the campaign that Labiosa hopes will raise around $100,000. Labiosa told the Blade the campaign is also looking for at least 70 volunteers who will be able to travel to Puerto Rico between May 13 and June 3.

“We know with a little we can do a lot,” he said. “It’s 10 households, but we’re impacting like 40 people because so many people are living in these houses.”

Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, director of the HRC Foundation’s Latinx and Catholic Initiatives, grew up in Caguas, Puerto Rico.

She told the Blade on Tuesday that her cousin is among the Puerto Ricans who still do not have electricity. Meléndez also said the campaign is a “proud moment for us as LGBTQ people to be involved in” the post-Maria recovery effort.

“We know there are many other efforts, but we know this is a forgotten population,” she told the Blade.

Editor’s note: Those who are interested in making a donation to Waves Ahead can click here.

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

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