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After Hurricane Maria, a family reunion in Lebanon

Written by Rachel McDevitt | Apr 4, 2018 7:00 AM

(Lebanon) -- Puerto Ricans have been moving into and out of the midstate for years, mostly for economic reasons.

After Hurricane Maria brought a wave of destruction to the island, many people moved here because they had family already in the area.

That was the case for the Vazquez family. 

Bryan Segarra Vazquez left Puerto Rico in search of better employment opportunities after graduating high school last year.

He found his way to Lebanon in September, just before Hurricane Maria hit the island. 

For a month after the storm, he couldn't get in touch with his family. He could see on the news how bad the damage was, and was hearing stories of the death toll rising. He was incredibly worried. 

During the storm, Sandra was terrified at her home in San Sebastian. 

"It sounded like the windows would shatter," she said of the hurricane. "I thought the door would blow open. Water was getting into the house."

Afterward, she just wanted to be able to tell her son she was ok. 

"It was horrible for us not to be able to speak," she said. "I would go out on the mountain, looking for the highest peak, playing with the phone, trying to find a signal to communicate."

Finally the two were able to speak, and while no one was hurt, things weren't going well on the island. 

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(Photo courtesy: Sandra Vazquez)

Sandra's home was damaged and she couldn't get help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair it. The schools were closed, and she worried about her children, especially her 12-year-old daughter. 

In the months after the storm, she couldn't do her job as a nurse, providing in-home care to patients. The the storm had caused so much damage, it could take hours for her to reach them. Sometimes she would arrive to find the patient had already been helped by a relief agency, and then she wouldn't get paid.  

It was time to leave. 

Sandra found a program that would fly her family from the island to Florida and enroll her kids in school. 

But once Sandra got to West Palm Beach, she cried every day. 

"I was totally disoriented because I didn't know who I could trust, who I could confide in. I didn't know where to go," she said. "I was lost."

FEMA put her family up in a hotel, but it wasn't long-term. The agency denied her application for an extension, because she was missing documents she says she didn't know she needed. 

In Lebanon, Bryan was trying to figure out how he could bring his family to him. 

"I was working and trying to save to bring them here because I knew FEMA assistance would run out at any moment," he said. 

Sandra described an emotional reunion. She hadn't seen her oldest child in more than six months. 

"I looked at him, and I said, I can't believe you're my son! Look how big you are. You look different, like another person!" Sandra said. "And I felt a lot of joy.  And I l kept looking and I said to my boy--well not my boy, he's already a man. I said to him, 'you're very handsome!'"

Once the family was back together, the next challenge was finding their place to live. 

Bryan had been staying with a youth pastor, living in a single room. His family joined him there for the next month. 

Bryan said it took some time to find a bigger place, because he didn't have Pennsylvania residency, he's young, and was working a temporary job. His mother hadn't found work yet. 

Finally, a landlord gave them a month-to-month lease on a small two-bedroom in the city. They're still sleeping on air mattresses, but Sandra says it's all coming together, little by little. 

Bryan has a more permanent job now making Lebanon bologna, while Sandra does janitorial work. 

They're both putting in overtime to make ends meet. 

Sandra wants to be a nurse again, but it will take a lot of time and effort. To transfer her license, she has to retake a test--in English. 

But she's determined to push through. 

"You have to go on," she said. "Rise up. If you fall, get up. I have to move forward, with more strength."

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The Vazquez family (from left to right) Ezequiel, Sandra, Geraldine, and Bryan. (Photo courtesy: Sandra Vazquez)

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