AIBONITO, Puerto Rico — Electricity is a necessity for many, but for Karen Feliciano, the need for power is about her son’s survival.
“He’s 18 years old but functions like a baby,” Feliciano said of her son, Kenny. “He can't do anything so I do everything for him, and I need electricity to do it all.”
The teenager is legally blind and suffers from a number of physical and neurological diseases, including cerebral palsy, microcephaly and encephalomalacia, Karen said.
“When he was born, the doctors said he would only live to 6,” she said.
It’s been nearly 60 days since electricity last flowed through the Jimenez Feliciano home — which makes it nearly two months since Kenny last received necessary respiratory therapy or was able to follow his regular diet.
“Since he’s not getting his therapy, he’s not doing as well with the cold, humidity and mold,” Feliciano said.
Without being able to puree his food, Feliciano has been forced to feed Kenny a mixture of canned milk and baby food. Kenny’s breathing is also limited without proper respiratory therapy.
This leaves Kenny unable to get what he needs to function at his highest level, she said.
The search for power
After writing a petition, Feliciano collected nearly 70 neighborhood signatures to submit to town leaders asking for an explanation as to why the neighborhood’s power has yet to be restored.
“We’ve been told we don’t have electricity because of a couple of light posts,” the petition reads. “This situation is worrying us because in this community there are many elderly people, kids with special needs and bedridden people that depend on electricity to power special equipment in order to continue to live.”
Because they say they have received little aid locally, Feliciano and her husband, Pedro Jimenez, traveled to San Juan to tell Kenny’s story and search for help at the Joint Field Office — where the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hurricane Maria efforts are headquartered.
They weren’t allowed through the front gate.
“We were literally trying to talk to anyone going in and out of the center,” Jimenez said. “Now we are waiting for a visit or even a call from FEMA, but nothing yet.”
The Joint Field Operations Center, an administrative and operations facility, is not equipped to handle applicant questions, said Daniel P. Llargués, FEMA National Spokesperson for the Hispanic Media.
“It was an unfortunate misunderstanding and we regret that it took place,” he added.
The family’s street is one of only a few still without power in Aibonito, a town of nearly 26,000, and they haven’t been given an estimate as to when it will be restored.
“The electric pole that went down is right there,” Feliciano said, pointing across the street. “We called the electric company and told them all of the needs we have, but they just told us we’ll have to wait — even if we can see the light so close.”
The Autoridad de Energía Electrica, Puerto Rico’s consolidated electric company, did not respond to numerous attempts for comment.
The family relied on generators for the first days following the storm, but both failed, leaving them in the dark.
“It’s depressing because you see yourself surrounded by everyone with light and power, and you don’t have any of that,” she said.
Most mornings, Feliciano wraps her arms around Kenny, carries him to the middle bench seat of her red Dodge Caravan and drives him to school.
Except now, instead of driving him around the corner to a school built to accommodate his needs, she takes him to a building that was structurally prepared to withstand the strength of a Category 4 hurricane.
Though it’s built to handle extreme weather, it isn’t prepared to properly facilitate special education students like Kenny.
Rosario Belber Elementary, destroyed by the storm, was the only public school in the central part of the island qualified to work with students with severe disabilities, said the school’s director, Myraimar Berríos Ferrer.
“Current plans call for a new space to be remodeled to fit the needs of the students’ disabilities at a nearby school,” she said.
The new location won’t be ready for students until January, Ferrer added.
For the time being, the students of Belber have been moved to Jose C. Barbosa school in Aibonito, but the transition has been less than ideal.
“It’s really hard on the kids to move them from school to school,” said Nancy Santiago, a special education teacher at Belber. “We’ve already spent two weeks in this new school, but the students haven’t adapted yet. It takes a lot of time.”
The decision whether to stay and rebuild Belber wasn’t up to the teachers and families, however. Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education, Julia Keleher, made the decision to move the school because of the high estimated cost to fix the structure.
“Our school is important, and we will do all that we can for our students,” Ferrer added.
While administrators say plans are in the works, Feliciano remains skeptical.
“The truth is, I don’t have a lot of high hopes, because I haven’t seen plans for anything that they tell us they’re going to do,” she said. “Come May, I think we’ll still be here in the same ‘temporary’ school.”
Caring for the family
Findings from the first epidemiological study on the state of mental health in Puerto Ricans since 1985 show about 7 percent of Puerto Rican adults between the ages of 18 and 64 suffer from a serious mental illness.
The study, carried out last year by the Behavioral Sciences Research Institute in the Medical Sciences Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, was needed by the Puerto Rico Administration of Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services to justify the allocation of federal funds for addressing this problem.
“Chronic stress and traumatic events exacerbate mental illness,” according to Glorisa Canino, Ph.D., who served as principal investigator for the report. “It’s also easy to explain the higher rates in depression due to the economic recession.”
The aftermath of the disaster has in many ways been worse than the storm, she said.
“Hurricane Maria could be considered traumatic, but also a current stressor,” Canino said. “In Puerto Rico’s case, the aftermath of the hurricane has been worse because of the lack of power and water that still isn’t available.”
The oldest daughter of the family, Kendra Jimenez Feliciano, 15, says her family is no exception. She and her father, Pedro Jimenez, are both psychiatric patients.
“Sometimes I feel discouraged and feel like everything is coming at me all at once,” Kendra said. “There are moments that I have to try to block it all out.”
Pedro’s aunt died about two weeks after the storm, he said. Doctors suspect she contracted an infection from creek water while washing clothes.
“I still really haven’t gotten over that,” Pedro said as he clasped his hands tightly and looked down at the ground.
Kendra said she and Pedro won’t be able to get another appointment with a local psychological doctor until February.
“There are no doctors available in the local facility that we go to until well after the New Year,” she added.
The effects of Hurricane Maria often increase Pedro and Kendra’s uneasy mindsets, leaving Karen to care for the family single-handedly — including Kenny and her autistic 6-year-old daughter, Kylia.
“Sometimes I feel alone,” Karen said. “I have to do a lot to keep everyone going, but I have to do it. I do it all for the kids.”
Ryan Michalesko is a former photo intern at the Journal Star. Harold Camilo contributed to this report, which was funded by a Pulitzer Center grant.