When Hurricane Maria barreled down on Puerto Rico in September 2017, Yamilka Montilla and her family were sheltered in their four-bedroom home in the northeastern town of Bayamón, praying for their safety.
Today, Montilla, her husband, Garibaldi Garrido, and their children, son Yadiel, 9, and daughter Yasmeli, 5, are acclimating to new surroundings and working toward a better, more prosperous future. It is the culmination of a long and challenging year.
“We were thinking about coming to Cleveland before the hurricane, in search of jobs and greater opportunity,” said Montilla, 35. “Maria gave me the push I needed to make a change, for the sake of my children and their future.”
She recalls how the loud, monstrous winds pummeled and destroyed trees, street lamps, electrical posts and homes.
Montilla spent much of the hurricane huddled in a bedroom with her children and other family members. Garrido stayed in the living room, where he worked feverishly to contain water that entered the home after a protective plywood board blew off a window.
According to Montilla, surviving Maria “was like being at the hands of a monster that wanted to destroy everything in its path.” A native of the Dominican Republic, she had never experienced anything of this magnitude.
Thankfully, the family’s home did not sustain significant damage. Yet, life after the hurricane was difficult and unpredictable — especially for a family with school-aged children.
There was no power or reliable communication on the island. Food, fuel, bottled water and cash were in short supply. Traffic jams and long lines to purchase necessities like food and water became the new normal. Many schools remained closed. Health care services became scarce, too.
The family eventually decided to move on, arriving in Cleveland on Nov. 15. They moved in with a friend of Montilla’s in Old Brooklyn. Garrido found work in a cookie factory and was able to purchase a car within a few months. He now works in Mentor at a company that manufactures snowplow parts.
The children attend Luis Muñoz Marin School in Cleveland. Yadiel is in fourth grade, and Yasmeli is in kindergarten. They have learned enough English to serve as occasional translators for their parents, who don’t speak much of the language.
Aside from the language barrier, the family’s biggest challenge has been securing affordable housing. It took them six months to find a home to rent in Cleveland. This required numerous housing applications, multiple credit screenings and, in some cases, application fees.
All in all, Montilla says that moving to Cleveland has been a positive experience. She does not intend to return to Puerto Rico, though she still has family there. Moving forward, she plans to work on her English and find a job as a childcare provider. She says the family could use a second car for greater mobility.
Looking back on the past year, Montilla — who joined Oasis De Bendicion in Linndale — says faith has been her anchor.
“We have to maintain our faith, because even when things are falling apart, God provides.”