MERIDEN — Monica Velez came to Connecticut from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria destroyed everything she had four years ago this month. With the help of local nonprofit organizations, she and other Puerto Ricans were able to create a new home in Meriden.
Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico and left nearly 80 percent of the island without power. The category 5 hurricane left many families devastated with no other option than to flee their uninhabitable homes. Thousands migrated to Connecticut seeking refuge.
Velez remembers praying all night on Sept. 20, 2017, as the winds destroyed everything in sight. The force of the wind sounded like words she couldn’t decipher. The storm made landfall in Puerto Rico as a category 4 hurricane with winds of 155 miles per hour.
In a house without power, her home began to flood. She looked out the window, only to see everything being ripped away from the ground. What was once a beautiful view of the mountainous trees turned had become deserted land.
In the aftermath, Velez had to wait hours in line for basic necessities. She remembers waiting in line for three hours for a bag of ice, gas and food. Velez spent two months without power before coming to Connecticut with the help of her sister.
“I would sometimes go a day without eating, I would eat a piece of bread a day because there was no food,” she said. New home
Velez recalled walking through the streets of her hometown in Caguas crying the day after the hurricane. “It looked like a desert to her, everything was gone.”
When Velez’s children think of Hurricane Maria they still cry. “This was a very hard time to go through. My children have never gone through something like that, and it touched them,” she said.
Velez described Hurricane Maria as one of the most difficult moments she has experienced.
Velez arrived in Connecticut on Dec. 7 and with no where else to go paid for a room at the Days Inn in Berlin. She and her family stayed there for a month until she was able to find her own place. While trying to get back on her feet, she received help from Casa Boricua and the Spanish Community of Wallingford. They provided her with basic necessities such as inflatable beds, coats and helped her children enroll in school.
“The first year was hard, but now everything is OK. I can’t complain, I received help. The first year is never easy leaving your home and starting new but if you can go through a hurricane like Maria, moving is nothing,” she said. Easing transition
Lizandra Mejias, assistant executive Director at SCOW, felt a calling to help those affected by the hurricane as the only Puerto Rican staff member. She collaborated with Casa Boricua to help victims with resources.
“A lot of people came here with nothing at all. All of their belongings were destroyed. A lot of work needed to be done, but we were very blessed to make it an easier transition,” she said.
Over the past four years, Velez has been able to buy herself a car, reside in a house and work multiple jobs.
“I’ve had to work hard, but the quality of life is so much better than they’ve had,” she said.
Velez plans to vacation in Puerto Rico for the first time since the hurricane but never plans on living there again due to the trauma the family faced. She says she is happy where she is now. Moving forward
Like Velez, Johanna Roman fled Puerto Rico after leaving her family and is now a Spanish teacher at Platt High School.
Roman recalled the devastation of leaving her family behind and starting anew in Connecticut looking for better opportunities. Nearly four years later, Roman says it has been worth it. When Roman arrived in Meriden she started off as a tutor at Maloney High School. By March 2019 Roman began working as a Spanish teacher and has continued since.
“Professionally, I was given the blessing to move forward and get new opportunities,” she said.
Reflecting on the last few years in Meriden, Roman said although she misses her family, Meriden is her new home.
Roman’s children have also been able to establish themselves in Connecticut. Her son recently purchased a house, and the rest of the family is working toward that goal as well.
“From my end, I have considered going to Puerto Rico since I still have a house there, but it’s almost like ‘OK, I will retire and go back.’ I would like to go back because of my family, but my children said they would never go back,” she said. ‘Community that helps’
Roman has enjoyed every moment in Meriden and has dedicated herself to getting to know Connecticut by visiting different cities.
Like all changes, Roman said it has been an adjustment. The biggest adjustment has been getting used to the cold winters and the emotional adaptation.
Roman is thankful she has been able to have resources to help her build her career in Meriden, which is something that was not easy in Puerto Rico.
“This is a community that helps,” she said. “Meriden is our new home.”