Photo from happier times before the hurricane at the co-op
From Orlando Sentinal
TRUJILLO ALTO, Puerto Rico — It’s 10 minutes to noon, and Alexandra Rodriguez Rios has already cooked and delivered more than 60 lunch plates to residents in her co-op living community.
She’s had a different menu every day since Hurricane Maria. It’s nothing fancy, she says. It’s what they call the “hurricane diet:” canned sausages, Spam, white rice, canned vegetables, beans.
But it is “guiso,” meaning it’s flavorful and well seasoned. And there’s always enough for anyone who might walk through the glass doors of the activity center at the Cooperativa de Vivienda Ciudad Universitaria.
Rodriguez Rios, 37, heads the cooking committee — one of six committees residents in the community have organized to make sure all of their own needs are met.
It’s been more than two weeks since the hurricane hit the island, but the cooking, maintenance, administrative and security committees are still going. They recently added an unofficial FEMA representative, who travels 30 minutes into San Juan to access government computers so she can sign people up for federal aid.
“I like cooking, so it’s no problem. I get here at 7:30 a.m. and I get everything done. I have no problem with it. Plus, there are so many elderly people here who live alone,” Rodriguez Rios said.
Rodriguez Rios’ cooking assistant, 62-year-old Josefina Vazquez, has a daughter who’s lived in Orlando since 2001. But she says she has no intention of leaving despite the storm. She takes care of her community and they take care of her.
“The cooperative system makes us who live in it very relieved,” Vazquez said.
Vazquez explained that their community of 1,100 people has learned to formalize the neighbor-to-neighbor mentality so well that in situations of crisis — such as this one — they don’t have to wait for the government to show up or feel the need to flee.
“There are a variety of situations in every home,” she said. “And we have professionals and people for every role.”
The community was built in 1974, with the idea that residents are also associates of their living environment. They come together to vote on administrative changes, make infrastructure decisions and pay monthly fees to sustain their independent structure.
The broken windows and temporary planks of plywood on every floor of the two buildings in Trujillo Alto are visible from the outside. Clothes that have been hand-washed with reused water in a tub hang from balconies. Green pieces of torn awnings hang from metal frames. The community’s playground is destroyed. But they’ve isolated debris and thousands of tree branches.
Rodriguez Rios said they asked the board of directors for a food-shopping budget. With a weekly budget of $200, they now feed up to 70 people one meal each day.
Carmen M. Santiago Rosario, 72, cleans the rice cauldron every morning at 6 a.m., well before Rodriguez Rios shows up to cook.
“You won’t give me any food for free. I told them to put me to work,” Santiago Rosario said.
She teared up talking about how much she appreciates the daily meal. Because there’s not enough diesel for generators to power up the elevators all the time, some residents cannot go down the stairs of the two 17-story buildings.
“I live alone, but with all these people who help me,” she said. “This is a close community.”
On Thursday the generator was working, so the improvised cafeteria was well-lit. But on most days, they cook in almost complete darkness, holding battery-powered lanterns over the gas burners and cutting boards. They open a door on the other side of the kitchen to let in a weak draft of fresh air.
Rodriguez Rios carries a walkie-talkie, which she uses to communicate with her husband at the Pueblo supermarket by their home. They’ve tested the distance — it’s at the limit of as far as it’ll go.
In a legal notepad, she keeps a list of all the people they’ve fed every day, crossing off the people they know can’t leave their apartments. She keeps inventory of the ingredients they have and the ones they’ll need. She’s already planned next week’s menu.
Vazquez says there are even social workers and mental-health experts on the team who have made the rounds around the community to make sure people at risk can manage their stress and anxiety. Two days ago, she rode with a neighbor with gastritis to the nearest hospital.
While the government expands their reach of remote areas on the island to deliver supplies and medical attention, residents of the Trujillo Alto complex will hold their own.
“If we’re human beings, we have to look after each other and care for each other,” Vazquez said.