Thousands were rescued from Fiona’s floods in Puerto Rico. These are some of their stories.

Pedro Portal/

When Hurricane Fiona flooded the home that Gilberto Amador and Milagros Solís Díaz have lived in for more than 50 years in southern Puerto Rico, the couple tried to stave off the raging waters as long as they could.

“I was holding the door and screaming to my son, ‘Come here so you can help me,’ ” said Solís, 73.

But the pressure was too strong, and the waters burst into the house within minutes.

“My son told me, ‘Papi, the fridge is flipping over,’ ” said Amador, 78.

The furious winds and rains lashed at them as municipal officials helped them escape. They arrived shaking from the cold to a shelter in the town of Yabucoa, where Hurricane Maria had entered the island five years earlier.

“The cot was harder than cement,” said Amador. “We slept a few hours.”

The couple is among thousands of Puerto Ricans whom authorities and neighbors saved from the floods Fiona unleashed across Puerto Rico in mid-September. The Category 1 storm overflowed rivers, creeks and coasts, ruining homes and trapping people inside.

In the Jaime C. Rodriguez neighborhood, where Solís and Amador live, the nearby brook poured out of its banks and into homes. About 60 people were retrieved from flooding homes, said municipal emergency official Ahmed Molina The damage was concentrated in three streets and at least 100 people had damage in their homes from waters that reached as high as about 4 feet, he added.

Down the street from the couple, Ramona Maldonado Ortiz, 70, put up zinc plates and wooden boards to stave off the storm waters. But the water broke through with ease, a torrent surrounding her at the waist at one point.

Municipal authorities pulled her out of her house with a digger. Her husband, José, who slipped and fractured a leg right before Fiona razed Puerto Rico, had to be carried out.

The neighborhood had experienced flooding before. But residents said this was different.

“This is the worst,” said Maldonado. “Everyone is saying this was the worst.”

Over 400 rescues took place in the southern town of Salinas alone, where the National Guard deployed heavy-duty trucks that could navigate the floodwaters to get those caught in their homes by the water in several neighborhoods, including in the communities of Playa and Playita.

Mildred Correa Padilla, a 52-year-old community leader and mother, said her street did not flood so badly during hurricanes. But around midnight, water began to rush in, reaching her calves. By the time she walked out into the street, she was waist-deep in storm waters. The National Guard, blaring horns to alert residents of their presence, picked them up in a truck.

“It was catastrophic,” she said. “I’ve been living here for 24 years and the water never entered my house.”

Initially, barely any water had entered the home of Yolanda Rivera Sanchez on the night that Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico. Then she and her husband looked out the window. The street and their car were completely under water. The cement fence that surrounded their small white home was no longer visible.

“In my life I had never seen so much water,” she said.

They called 911. Eventually authorities came to their rescue, her 7-year-old daughter hoisted over a shoulder.

In Las Ochenta, a historical fishing, tight-knit community of mostly elderly residents a few miles away from Playa and Playita, residents were cut off during Fiona when a bridge flooded on one side and the Nigua river flooded on the other.

“There were so many situations, that as we asked for help, there were other communities doing so as well. They didn’t have staff,” said Cathy Pagán, 35, a community leader born and raised in the neighborhood.

She told the Miami Herald that she and other residents spent hours rescuing people from their homes when neighbor Rolando Delgado and his cousin Rosa saw the low-lying areas of the neighborhood were flooding.

“We started getting the most vulnerable, like the elders and wheelchair users, out,” she said. “Then other people started writing to me and identifying where they were.”

The makeshift rescuers would drive an SUV, honking until where the water reached. Then, they would start wading through the dirty floodwaters, screaming neighbors’ names. Many were asleep and didn’t know what was happening.

“You draw strength from an unknown place,” said Delgado.

The power was out, and they couldn’t see where they were going as they fought against the water. Refrigerators, car tires and chairs floated by them. In one case, a woman had fallen into a slumber using sleeping pills. When she woke up, her bed was spinning in floodwaters.

Iris Gonzalez, 70, was rescued along with her husband, who can barely walk, and Negri, her black three-legged dog.

“I was in the living room, and then the water started rushing through the back door,” she said, adding she wasn’t scared but that she worried for her dog.

In all, Pagán, her father, Delgado, and another friend rescued about 50 people and at least 10 dogs and one cat, and housed them in their homes. Now, the community leaders are set on making sure nothing like this ever happens again.

“It’s not that the government didn’t want to come, it’s that we are a community that gets cut off,” said Pagán, who hosted 30 people.

Years ago, the community leader and others re-outfitted the community’s old dispensary, which has become a community center with a tiny library and kitchen that also hosts Christmas parties and summer camps.

After Fiona, residents at the center prepared meals with 28 pounds of rice, as well as veal, and chicken fricassee, avocado and more to feed over 100 residents. Boxes of bottled water were piled up against a white board, where neighbors had made a street-by-street, house-by-house census and a list of homes that needed to be cleaned. Children were dropping off meals at the homes of the elderly.

Now community leaders plan to rescue the Maestra Matilda Rivera Amadeo school, which shuttered, like hundreds of others on the island. They hope that once it is restored, the school will serve as a larger community center and that it can be used like a shelter during times of emergency, as it once was.

After Fiona, community leaders, among them Ada Miranda, said residents are determined to open the school.

“I am feeling the community more united than ever,” Miranda said.