September 22, 2018 at 11:08 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Puerto Rico marks Hurricane Maria anniversary

Sept. 20, 2018, marked a year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Thursday marked one year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

The hurricane had winds of 155 mph when it made landfall near the city of Yabucoa on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast on Sept. 20, 2017. Maria’s eye passed over the municipalities of San Lorenzo, Caguas, Aguas Buenas, Comerío, Naranjito, Corozal, Morovis, Ciales, Manatí, Florida, Barceloneta and Arecibo before it moved offshore of Puerto Rico’s northern coast.

A hurricane-damaged house in La Perla neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 18, 2018. The house was in nearly the same condition on Jan. 29, 2018, with piles of debris in front of it. (Washington Blade photos by Michael K. Lavers)

Hurricane Irma, which devastated St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands and other islands in the northeastern Caribbean, brushed Puerto Rico less than two weeks before Maria made landfall.

Sixty percent of Puerto Rico lost power during Irma. Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. commonwealth were without electricity and/or running water for months after Maria.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his wife, Beatriz Rosselló, joined Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and hundreds of others at an event in Old San Juan that marked the anniversary of Maria. Flags flew at half staff at government buildings across Puerto Rico on Thursday.

The Associated Press reported a ceremony took place in Yabucoa at the exact moment that Maria made landfall a year ago. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz on Wednesday visited a photo exhibit in Old San Juan’s Columbus Square that showed pictures of Maria’s immediate aftermath and relief efforts in her city.

Grissel Bonilla, co-founder of Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBTI Puerto Ricans and other groups recover from Maria, and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was born in Puerto Rico, on Wednesday spoke at the Human Rights Campaign about the hurricane’s continued impact in Puerto Rico. Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, who grew up in Caguas, helped organize the event that benefitted Waves Ahead.

Ricky Santiago on Feb. 1, 2018, stands in what remains of his hair salon in Humacao, Puerto Rico, that Hurricane Maria destroyed. Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBTI Puerto Ricans and other groups
recover from Maria, helped Santiago rebuild his salon and turn it into his new home. Santiago was sitting in his living room on Sept. 19, 2018, when Wilfred Labiosa, co-founder of Waves Ahead, visited him and his family. (Washington Blade photos by Michael K. Lavers)

Situation ‘getting better’ in U.S. Virgin Islands

Waves Ahead’s other co-founder, Wilfred Labiosa, told the Blade this week in Puerto Rico that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and poverty have made LGBTI Puerto Ricans even more vulnerable since the hurricane.

Raymond Luis Rohena of the Puerto Rico Trans Youth Coalition and Brian Ínaru de la Fuente of La Sombrilla Cuir echoed Labiosa when they spoke with the Blade on Wednesday at a Starbucks in the San Juan suburb of Carolina.

Edgardo Rosario Rentas of Vieques Ready, a group that helps residents of Vieques, an island off the Puerto Rico mainland, prepare for hurricanes, said during a telephone interview the island is still on generator power. Rosario, a gay man who worked at a W resort before Maria, told the Blade there are still people on Vieques who are still living without electricity or running water.

“We’re trying to move forward,” he said. “The government is going slower than they should go.”

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)

The other activists and HIV/AIDS service providers with whom the Blade spoke in Puerto Rico — including Bill’s Kitchen Executive Director Sandy Torres, Puerto Rico Community Network for Clinical Research on AIDS Executive Director Rosaura López-Fontánez and Anselmo Fonseca of Pacientes de Sida Pro Política Sana — also said recovery efforts have been very slow.

Maria devastated St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands the day before it made landfall in Puerto Rico.

Lavonne Wise, an LGBTI activist who works for the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, told the Blade on Monday during a telephone interview that many people on her island, as in Puerto Rico, are still living in homes with blue tarps as temporary roofs. Wise also said she and her wife still do not have a landline or Internet connection at their home.

“Things are getting better,” she said. “We still got a ways to go.”

Trump ‘wrong’ to reject Maria death toll

President Trump’s response to Maria continues to spark widespread outrage in Puerto Rico.

Rosselló, who has faced his own scathing criticism over his government’s response to Maria, has been reluctant to publicly criticize Trump.

Rosselló earlier this month pushed back on Trump’s rejection of the results of a George Washington University study that attributed 2,975 deaths to Maria. Cruz told the Blade on Wednesday during an interview in Old San Juan that Trump’s decision to reject the hurricane’s official death toll in Puerto Rico is “despicable.”

“It shows that he’s unhinged from any sense of reality,” she said.

The White House on Thursday issued a fact sheet with a headline that says the Trump administration “helped lead a historic recovery effort in Puerto Rico.” It contained a one sentence statement attributed to Trump that acknowledged Maria’s anniversary.

“And we stand with Puerto Rico, and we are helping them to rebuild stronger and better than ever before,” he said.

Wise on Monday was highly critical of Trump’s response to Maria in Puerto Rico.

“It’s disgraceful that he needs to be right whether he’s right or not,” she said. “It’s a bit of an embarrassment and his need to be louder and righter than everybody else is embarrassment and waste of everyone’s time and energy.”

Rosario told the Blade that Trump is “wrong” to reject Maria’s death toll.

“PTSD after the hurricane was so big and the uncertainly among the people were so big, people are going to keep dying,” said Rosario. “There’s people on Vieques who still don’t have electricity. There’s people on Vieques who still don’t have running water.”

Former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito speaks at a Waves Ahead event at the Human Rights Campaign that marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico. (Washington Blade photo by Wyatt Reid Westlund)

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

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