"Ayuda Pa La Montaña"
Alberto Ramirez Wirshing knew that Hurricane Maria would be different. He had seen his share of troubles in his years in San German, Puerto Rico- from Hurricane Irma only a few weeks prior; to the economic crash in 2006 after the repeal of the island's tax breaks; all the way back to his childhood when the family cattle business was driven to bankruptcy by competition from factory farms on the mainland.
Alberto Ramirez Wirshing at La Casita de ely
Alberto's family owns a stretch of buildings along one block in San German, property that stretches back to the 1800s when his forebears were among the most prominent landed agricultural families on the island, including the space for La Casita de Ely- current home of Ayuda Pa La Montaña.
Entrance to Alberto's House, San German
Down the street from La Casita de Ely, Alberto and his family live in a second-floor apartment. Their block was one of the first to get power in a city where recovery proceeds in unpredictable patterns.
Night in San German from Alberto's Balcony
The power in San German has been turned on for some of the buildings in this shot, representative of its asymmetric recovery across the city. Alberto and his family had power restored a week before this photo was taken; other buildings remain offline.
San German was the traditional residence of Puerto Rico's agricultural class, the antebellum south to San Juan's more cosmopolitan north. It is a city of colonial Spanish and French patios, cobbled streets, and- more recently- large swaths of vacant buildings. The emigration out of the island's Southwest region has not been studied at length since the storm, but locals speak of towns feeling "abandoned"- particularly in the areas surrounding the inland mountains.
Two years prior, Alberto and his family founded La Casita de Ely, a multimedia arts and community activity center at the heart of San German. Ely, his daughter, was the inspiration to use one of the family's buildings to create a space for the local children to learn, play, and interact. Over time, the parents of the children grew close, and a tight-knit community emerged with La Casita de Ely at the center.
The storm knocked out all of the power on the island, and patches in the Southwest had no communication for weeks afterwards. Braulio Quintana, a native of Mayaguez, was listening to the radio before it cut out entirely. "It was the mayor of San German- it's pretty hard to think about him again. He was talking about the level of destruction, how bad things were...and then it cut out."
Puerto Rico contains the United States' only patches of tropical rainforest, much of which covers the so-called "highland" areas which cut across the island from Maricao in the west to Yabucoa in the east. Much of this territory is accessible primarily by dirt roads cut into mountainsides. The town of Lares, northwest of San German, lost contact with the more populous areas immediately after the storm hit and spent weeks in the dark.
Frustrated by the long weeks without government support, Alberto began to reach out to other members of the La Casita de Ely network via Facebook. As power was restored in San German, more and more residents turned to social media to communicate.
"Once I get there, I see there's a lot of people that need psychological support. That's why we have psychologists with us, we got psychologists that are going with us on the missions, give the people assessments and supports and follow ups, telling them which where to go in order to get them their mindset ready for whatever's ahead of them, because it's difficult times, you know, you cannot tell them it's gonna get better within a week, you cannot put a timetable to get these people squared away."