Rafael Muñoz-Cintrón and his family had been tracking Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria days before it hit, but nothing could prepare them for its chaos and destruction when it finally did.
In a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Muñoz-Cintrón, his wife and their daughters – a junior and eighth-grader – resided in a walk-up complex. Muñoz-Cintrón had lived in Puerto Rico his whole life, having served during Desert Storm in the U.S. Air Force. He had a good job with Homeland Security’s emergency management department and his wife, Margarita, was a public information officer.
But their life in Puerto Rico came crashing down on Sept. 20 when the category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds flooded the island in some parts with several feet of rain.
“It was something we’d never experienced before,” Muñoz-Cintrón said. “One of the largest storm recordings in U.S. history, nothing can prepare you for the shock of a category 4.”
Prior to the storm, the family had crafted an emergency plan, they locked down their home’s storm shutters and told their daughters they would be safe.
When they finally opened their front door, Muñoz-Cintrón said “basically all the trees were torn down” and it was difficult to physically get out of the building because the downed trees were covering the entrance.
“It was shocking, very shocking,” he said.
Their power went out the day before the hurricane and although they tried to stay connected through the radio and mobile phones, communication was still severely impacted. This, Muñoz-Cintrón said, was one of the biggest factors that prompted he and his family to move to the United States, as his wife suffers from several chronic autoimmune diseases and they had trouble contacting her doctor in the weeks after the storm.
After he finally got his wife’s doctor to write her prescription, Muñoz-Cintrón then had to travel to 22 pharmacies trying to collect her needed prescriptions. The supply chains were not delivering prescription drugs to retail pharmacies, he explained. When he did get the drugs, they were limited.
“Out of 90 pills, they only gave 30,” he said.
The hurricane also impacted the local economy greatly. Muñoz-Cintrón witnessed firsthand 30 people waiting in line for more than an hour at the grocery store.
“People were making 12 hour lines in gas stations just to get $20 of gas,” he said. “That was three weeks after the hurricane.”
The National Guard was often on duty at the gas stations because of an imposed curfew due to the chaotic situation.
“It was getting out of hand,” he said. “People in lines at gas stations you could see were armed with guns or machetes.”
But, its declining economy wasn’t new. For the last 10 years, the country has been bankrupt, Muñoz-Cintrón said.
“My daughters have been after me to move stateside for a better job and better life,” he said. “The hurricane was the last message from God to get out here.”
That, coupled with Margarita’s declining health, incited Muñoz-Cintrón to contact Patient Air Lift Services and the family was able to leave Puerto Rico with one carry-on each on Oct. 12.
And, so, with friends in Bellevue, the family has since settled in the Lake Hills neighborhood through the help of a group of volunteers from different churches. Muñoz-Cintrón’s wife is now receiving the medical care she needs, his daughters are in school and they are renting a house.
But now they’re struggling in a different way.
In addition to his wife and two girls, the family is taking care of their elderly mother who moved in with them after the hurricane.
To be successful in their move, Muñoz-Cintrón must secure work.
Make no mistake, Muñoz-Cintrón has been busy. He’s at the Department of Social and Health Services one day, getting training the next, off to a job interview, collecting food at a food bank, and then making connections with local churches and organizations that have graciously helped. Muñoz-Cintrón does all of this relying on the bus system, as he has no vehicle.
“People from the community have been helpful,” he said, listing the furnished rental home, and the acts of kindness and assistance that have been bestowed on his family.
So far, they’ve received donations from the parishioners of St. Madeline Sophie Catholic Church, the Lamb of God Lutheran Church of the East Shore Unitarian Church.
Someone even set up a gofundme.com account with the goal of raising $7,500 to help them until Muñoz-Cintrón can find a full-time job.
“At this time, while Rafa [sic] searches for a job, they have no income to meet next month’s rent, monthly utility bills, groceries, clothing, public transportation, buy health insurance to cover Margarita’s medical expenses, among other ongoing monetary needs,” the gofundme.com account states. “For these reasons, they are humbly grateful for all the kind and generous help they have received in these first two weeks, and they hope and pray it will continue until Rafa is able to secure a full-time job.”
The gofundme.com account has raised $762 since it was created on Nov. 6.
“The assistance given to us by several local churches has been outstanding,” he said. “I believe we are the only Puerto Rican family that evacuated the island and came to Washington.”
To donate to the Muñoz-Cintrón’s gofundme.com account, visit