The first thing Kelene Jusino thought about as water creeped into her house on Sunday night was her unborn daughter.
At seven-months pregnant, the 29-year-old, who lives with her husband in Salinas, on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, was used to preparing for hurricane season—especially since the island has still not fully recovered from devastating Hurricane Maria five years ago. But Jusino told The Daily Beast that she had finally gotten everything ready ahead of her November due date and was overwhelmed by the possibility of losing their home and belongings to Hurricane Fiona.
“My husband and I were inside of the home when it happened. It started off as just water coming into the house, and my husband was trying to empty it with a bucket to try to stop it from taking over,” Jusino told The Daily Beast on Wednesday via text message, noting that she is still unable to make calls because of the spotty cell service and minimal power on the island. “He then went outside to try to stop it from coming in. When he came inside, that is when the mudslide happened—right where he was standing previously.”
Jusino said that as the then-Category 1 storm continued to barrel though the tiny island, battering her home with heavy rains and winds, her 28-year-old husband was “trying to run through the house grabbing everything he could to put it on higher ground in an attempt to salvage some of them.” Eventually, they were forced to leave their home in the middle of the night “with only the clothes on our backs and our IDs, not knowing what we would come back to.”
When they finally did come back, they found their home had partially collapsed and was completely covered in mud. Several rooms were flooded with inches of water and large chunks of earth were piled up against the side of their house from the mudslide.
The expecting mother is just one of thousands of Puerto Ricans struggling to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Fiona ravaged the archipelago last week, bringing up to 32 inches of rain, over 100 mph winds, and mudslides that have so far left at least four dead, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said. The Category 4 storm is now headed northward toward Bermuda and parallel to the United States.
The ongoing devastation in Puerto Rico prompted the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Wednesday to declare a public health emergency on the island. That declaration comes after Biden authorized FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate relief efforts.
HHS sent a 15-person “Health and Medical Task Force” to Puerto Rico, along with a 10-strong “incident management team,” the agency announced. They will work alongside other emergency responders “to determine what, if any, additional federal public health and medical resources can be brought to bear to aid the territory in responding to the hurricane.”
Biden is expected to be briefed remotely Thursday afternoon by Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi on the restoration situation on the island. Pierluisi tweeted that 78 municipalities have already received aid through Biden’s Major Disaster Declaration and his office is working with mayors to ensure residents get help as recovery efforts continue.
“I approved an Expedited Major Disaster Declaration for Puerto Rico in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Fiona,” Biden tweeted on Thursday. “I will continue to ensure the full force of the Federal government is mobilized to support the people of Puerto Rico.”
So far, at least four people in Puerto Rico have died due to Fiona, including a 70-year-old man who was burned to death when he poured gasoline into a generator while it was running, according to the Associated Press. In a second harrowing incident, a 58-year-old man died after being swept away by a river swollen from extreme rains.
For Jusino, the knowledge that she and her husband made it out of the devastating storm alive is enough to help her through the process of trying to rebuild their lives before she is expected to give birth in November. Rebecca Aponte, a childhood friend of Jusino who has launched a GoFundMe campaign on her behalf, told The Daily Beast that she “has been optimistic about the future even though she has lost a lot of their belongings.
“The community has really come through with support both in person and at a distance,” Aponte, who also has family in Puerto Rico, added.
The expecting mother noted that most of their focus now is trying to salvage the remnants of their home destroyed from the mudslide. She and her husband of two years are staying with relatives nearby and neighbors have been helping them “remove the mud from inside our home and clean the inside.”
“We are lucky that in spite of all of this, it was not a more catastrophic event, we have our health, and we are still anxiously awaiting our baby girl in November,” she added. “We know some hard days are ahead to be able to fully recover from this. However, we are at peace as we know that we will make it through this. We will do it for our baby girl.”