A mother and daughter, from Puerto Rico to New York

New York City's service center for  victims of Hurricane Maria  closed quietly on Friday after 2,522 client visits.
New York City’s service center for victims of Hurricane Maria closed quietly on Friday after 2,522 client visits. Photo Credit: Facebook

Carmen Luna just wanted to be with her mother. That is what she was thinking in October, when she flew to San Juan to get Olga Candelario.

Luna, 43, had lived in New York for several years and her mother was widowed and alone back in Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria, Luna’s mother had no water, no light. The 69-year-old was not in good health. She had suffered a stroke and had high blood pressure. Luna, a home attendant, could take care of her. She brought her mother back to New York.

Theirs is the story of a mother and a daughter, of a devastating natural disaster and of families trying to make do in a different city. It’s the story of that city attempting to help those in need, and how those attempts can sometimes fail to fully smooth a difficult transition. No migration or flight from a disaster zone is simple.

Luna brought her mother home to the Bronx. They kept busy. There were doctors appointments. For a period of time, Luna said her mother lost her health insurance, and they paid for medication out of pocket while trying to get it back. Luna took time off from work to help Candelario. Luna’s mother didn’t like the cold, but she wanted to stay here with her daughter.

Last days of a service center

Last Wednesday, Luna went to the East Harlem service center the city had set up for hurricane victims, sited at the longstanding Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, named after a Puerto Rican poet and adoptive New Yorker. Luna was among the last visitors to the temporary disaster center at Julia de Burgos. The center closed quietly on Friday after 2,522 client visits, the majority of them from Puerto Ricans, according to NYC Emergency Management. Hurricane victims are now being directed to pre-existing facilities around the five boroughs.

When it launched in October, the center bustled with victims from Puerto Rico and other recently-disaster-struck areas. The center gave out MetroCards and diapers but also brought together public and nonprofit service providers, acting as a sort of one-stop shop to get the ball rolling for government services.

Some people were grateful for the help. Others grew frustrated by what wasn’t immediately available: most notably, housing. Luna says she went to the center on behalf of her mother for help with medical coverage, housing, and food stamps.

She says she was told to return with her mother, which was frustrating. Her mother wasn’t in the best shape for traveling. But it was back on the bus to pick up her mother and return. They arrived sometime around 4 p.m. A volunteer who was at the center says it was after the “stop point” for the afternoon when walk-in cases were not typically taken, but mother and daughter were ushered in anyway.

Luna describes her mother as “tranquila” while they filled out intake paperwork. Another worker noticed that Candelario was coughing and asked whether she wanted to go into a quiet backroom and see the Red Cross, according to the volunteer. But the volunteer said Luna and her mother demurred.

Then Luna’s mother said she had to go to the bathroom and Luna accompanied her. In the bathroom, her mother was washing her hands at the sink when she collapsed in Luna’s arms.

Luna was in shock. She tried to give CPR. She called for help down the hall. In her work as a home attendant, she’d never experienced a health crisis like this.

The FDNY received a call at 4:04 and EMS was on the scene at 4:13, according to fire department officials.

Olga Candelario was transported to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. But it was too late. Luna is not sure exactly where or when her mother died.

The hurricane last year

A worker at the center went to the hospital, according to the center volunteer. The remaining workers were sick about the situation, the volunteer said. They were doing the best they could to help people. By the weekend, the service center would be packed up and gone, the autumn hurricane receding into the rearview for some.

For Luna, it has been a distressing few days, her mother brought to safety in NYC just to succumb to health troubles in a Manhattan hospital. Her mother was a “saint,” is the only way she can describe her. She did take care of her until the end.

This week, Luna is back in Puerto Rico, preparing for her mother’s funeral services. And she is waiting for her mother’s body, set to return home Thursday after Candelario’s four months in New York.