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The Monet family


Maria Monet's feet swelled up in pain as she collapsed into bed. Full days on foot looking for work all over Philadelphia had left her unable to walk. Between caring for her three adolescent children, appealing to the FEMA, and establishing a new life in this new city, Maria hasn't stopped running around the clock since she arrived with her family to Philadelphia on December 4th. "I needed a break. I don't have time for a break, but that day, I needed one." 

Her daughter, Judy, 16, chimes in: "She deserved it."

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Before the storm, Maria had managed to secure a part-time job as a janitor after losing her work at a factory she'd been at many years. It had been a breath of relief after a series of difficult months. Her mother, who she and her children were very close to, had passed away in the early summer. The loss of love and emotional support had also represented a loss of income. “With her welfare, we were able to get by,” Maria says.

But when Hurricane Maria hit, devastated her hometown of Fajardo, and damaged the electricity lines that led to the center, everyone, including full-time staff, were laid off until further notice. Maria lost her last source of cash. In the weeks after the cyclone, Maria did not have enough food or water for all four mouths at home. “We would barter cold water for food, ice for a gallon of gasoline,” Crisjoel, her 17-year-old son, says. It was by trading with neighbors that the family of four was able to get by.  

Maria wants to give her kids a better future than the one she began to see emerge in Puerto Rico. The loss of jobs after Maria, in her family’s experience, has led to an uptick in the drug trade and the black market. “It’s drugs and crimes what’s moving in Puerto Rico right now,” Crisjoel says. 

The power in their home came back quickly because of their proximity to hospitals. The location was a double-edged sword: Maria feared the hazards that the poorly preserved dead bodies piling up in the morgues could have for community health. At the grocery store, the power would go out suddenly, leaving spoiling meat and milk to line the aisles. The trash wasn’t being picked up in Fajardo as of December, and “rats as big as cats were running all over each other and eating the garbage,” Crisjoel says.  

Maria wants to give her kids a better future than the one she began to see emerge in Puerto Rico. The loss of jobs after Maria, in her family’s experience, has led to an uptick in the drug trade and the black market. “It’s drugs and crimes what’s moving in Puerto Rico right now,” Crisjoel says.

“They are seeing my suffering because of the circumstances, and they are two boys. If someone comes up to them on the street and offers them to hold a package or sell drugs or do something like that, it’s an offer. I wanted them to be out of that risk and be people for their community. You want to be there, but it’s impossible to do that right now,” Maria says.

When Maria’s aunt invited her to live with her in Philadelphia, promising her a job, she jumped at the opportunity. Maria sold what little hadn’t been damaged during the storm, and arrived to the city full of hopes for a new life with her children.

For the first two months, this arrangement worked well. Maria had the housing and support to get back on her feet and look for work. Over time, though, she began to feel pressured by her relatives to leave. They complained about the Monets’ presence in the home and pressured Maria to pay for the utility bills.  “What little money I had from government assistance or that I scrambled to make, I contributed what I could,” she says. “What food I found, I always brought home.” 

Maria felt like “she had been left hanging in the air.” The business where she had been offered work by her aunt had closed down after a week. No one told Maria.

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She started to look for her own housing options, but applying to transitional housing with FEMA opened up a can of post-hurricane worms that the mother of three thought she had left back in Puerto Rico. Back on the island, she had applied to a grant of $500 given to families after the cyclone, and never heard back. She believed that the Philadelphia office, by virtue of being in a place that wasn’t in a state of emergency, would better assist her. She was sorely mistaken.

When the time came to prove to the federal agency that the house in Fajardo, a northeastern coastal municipality where she has lived her whole life, had been heavily damaged, they made it extremely difficult to prove it was her place of residency. The house was under Maria's mother's name, and there was no testament to show she was the rightful heir.  The agency denied her case, stating that an alternate for a vacation home showed up on her file, and told her she could live there instead. “I have no idea what they are talking about. FEMA always has a new excuse,” Maria sighs.

Back on the island, she had applied to a FEMA grant of $500 given to families after the cyclone, and never heard back. She believed that the Philadelphia office, by virtue of being in a place that wasn’t in a state of emergency, would better assist her. She was sorely mistaken.

But because she already has a FEMA case number, Maria has opted to continue fighting for herself and Crisjoel, Judy, and Diego. If she can’t prove that she lived in the house, she at least hopes she can claim compensation for everything inside the house that was lost to the furious winds and rains of the storm. 

Maria and her children chalk it up to luck that they ended up at a hotel. Otherwise, they would have fallen down the cracks the Philadelphia government has created throughout the evacuee crisis. By chance, Maria met Representative Emilio Vazquez, who helped her navigate the mythical bureaucracies that Puerto Ricans face trying to get FEMA assistance. Puerto Rican activists and community leaders have also assisted them throughout the relocation process.

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Now living in a Center City hotel, Maria and her family have been able to settle in. Crisjoel and Judy enrolled in a Philadelphia virtual high school, and are en route to completing the 11thgrade. “After the hurricane, we only took like two weeks of class between September and December,” Judy says. They often get bored because they don't meet other people their age through their online educational center, but hope to join youth extracurricular clubs in the city. 

Maria found a job at a casino in King of Prussia, and is now looking for housing before FEMA evicts her family on April 20th from their hotel. Her eldest son, Diego, who studied to become a doctor’s administrative assistant, would eventually like to work in the field that he studied.                            

For Maria, it's now a question of building a life after the storm. She is looking to get her children and herself professional psychological help, but can't afford it yet. She is looking to heal and thrive, and create a new life for her family. Maria has fought for herself and her children, but worries of the bureaucratic obstacles she continues to face. “Do not create more obstacles than the ones we already have, especially to those who have demonstrated their needs,” says Maria of FEMA, one of the institutions she initially relied on to help her.

But Maria has faith in all the friendly strangers her family has met in Philadelphia, who have helped her cut through the red tape. She has faith that the city, at its heart, is good.