Leida Rodriguez had always desired to own a little home by the sea.
Six years ago, she and her husband, Jaime Castellano, arrived in Villa Esperanza, a small community in the southern municipality of Salinas where the Caribbean Sea meets the Nigua River, to make that dream come true.
“It is a very peaceful place, a lot of humble people,” said Rodriguez, 50. “Quickly, they took us in like family.”
The couple from the central town of Naranjito, who celebrated their 30th anniversary last month, lived in a camper someone had given them while they built the home little by little.
Rodriguez suffers from lupus, which slowed down construction because she could not tolerate the island sun. Then she was diagnosed with 20% heart function. She was put on 16 medications. Doctors put a defibrillator in her chest. At one point, the couple thought they might have to abandon their plans.
But in May 2019, with the help of loved ones, the couple finished their home: a one-floor, sky-blue and gray house with white columns, surrounded by spiny cacti and a large, grassy backyard. A steel, modern rail led to the front door, where wind chimes swayed with the breeze. They hung lights from the trees and set up wooden and tile tables.
“They made the home happen. It was the most beautiful one here,” said neighbor Joel Mendez, “Everyone was in love with that house.”
The home’s tree-shaded outdoors became a gathering place for friends and family, and there was always plenty of food and drink. On weekdays, Rodriguez would cook breakfast and meals for neighbors in the outdoor kitchen.
“Our friends here in Salinas became our family,” said Rodriguez. And everyone who visited from elsewhere, she said, asked her help to get a house in the town.
Then came the news last week that Hurricane Fiona would cross Puerto Rico, drenching the island with rain.
At first, Rodriguez said, Castellano insisted that they stay put in their home, even though neighbors said floodwaters had risen some two feet during Hurricane Maria in 2017. A week before, the Salinas couple had learned that they would become grandparents for the first time. That was enough to convince them to leave.
“I had an instinct. I can’t explain it,” she said.
The couple stored valuable belongings to protect them from flooding. Then, as the first rains began in Villa Esperanza, they drove two and a half hours, an hour over the usual, to stay with one of their two children in the mountain town of Naranjito. As they left, they could hear the river waters rumbling.
“It’s hard to leave your belongings here,” said Castellano, “but life is worth more.”
During the storm, a neighbor shared security footage so they could see what was going on. In every photograph, the water rose over more steps on the front door staircase. Around midnight, the couple got a phone call that the camera no longer worked. The next day, the neighbor reached out again, saying the house had “suffered damages” and that they needed to return to Villa Esperanza.
“It seems like the neighbor didn’t want to give the news over the phone,” Castellano said.
The house was still in one piece. But it had collapsed into a sinkhole that caved in furious floodwaters. Brown mud streaks ran across to the top of the walls. Two wind chime tubes survived, held together by a decoration that reads “Beach.” The water pressure shattered the front door’s glass, the river sludge shooting through and plastering every inch of its interior. The floods ripped away the backyard grass, along with the road that ran parallel to the residence.
“My life is over,” Castellano said he thought when he first saw what was left.
His wife felt like she was in mourning.
“It’s obviously not the same. Someone’s life is worth much more. But it’s how I describe it,” she said.
The couple is now staying with their children. Every day, they have gone to Villa Esperanza to clean up the devastation that Fiona left behind. Castellano spray painted his phone number on the front wall in case anyone wants to reach him or offer help.
“Everyone who knows us who has come by has cried for us,” said Rodriguez.
On a recent afternoon, Castellano entered the unstable house to dig out his driver’s license and other important documents from the mud. After a few hours, he emerged, a dark pouch in hand, victorious. One corner of the house was still submerged in a dirty pool of floodwater.
Rodriguez isn’t sure where they will call home next. When the Puerto Rico Department of Housing came to visit Villa Esperanza, officials assured the couple they would assist them. But despite the government’s promises, Castellano believes the relief won’t come in time, if it ever does.
The neighbors have been cleaning out the lot to help out, and restoring the couple’s well so they can have water again. They wanted to lift the house with a crane and put it in a safe place, but one of its columns cracked.
For now, Castellano is thinking about building a new, temporary home on the lot. They could use the outdoor bathroom and kitchen, which survived the collapse.
“Something simple, maybe wood,” he said, “Something we can live in.”
Rodriguez said that God’s will is not to be questioned, and that she has already overcome health battles where her life was at stake. She can survive this too.
“This is what nature decided,” she said.