Carmen vs. Maria

Make text smaller Make text larger


  • Carmen Quinones on the eve of Hurricane Maria in Añasco, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Carmen Quinones

  • Carmen Quinones and her sister Elba before the onset of Hurricane Maria in Añasco, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Carmen Quinones

Or how the president of a tenant association in Manhattan Valley survived the killer hurricane that lashed Puerto Rico — and used her organizing skills to heal and care for others


Carmen Quinones had never seen anything like it: “It was almost like a movie where God opens up the oceans,” she said.

She was describing the Biblical deluge she witnessed in Añasco on the west coast of Puerto Rico as Hurricane Maria mercilessly battered the town, and wind-whipped surging seas engulfed everything in sight.

“Trees were falling, lampposts were falling, there were no houses around. A little black dog trying to swim got lost under the water,” she recalled. “You couldn't see anything but a sea of water that went on for miles and miles and miles.”

And then there was the sound of the wind. “It was enough to make you go crazy,” she said. “It was like a wolf howling.” She corrected herself, “It was more like a pack of wolves howling and howling for two days.”

Now, Quinones is pretty tough. Politically savvy, too. For the past three years, she's been president of the tenants association at Frederick Douglass Houses, an 18-building, 4,500-resident city housing project in Manhattan Valley where she's lived for 35 years.

She's also run political campaigns for 10 years through Grassroots Inc., her consulting firm, and has served as a Democratic district leader for eight years and Democratic state committeewoman for four years.

None of that prepared her for Maria. Or did it?

The 59-year-old Quinones had come to the island to say goodbye to her 84-year-old father, Mario Quinones, who doctors said had about a week to live. “Daddy, I'm coming,” she told him via phone from New York. “Wait for me.”

Apparently, he listened. His last words were, “I love you,” she says. “Then he kissed me and went into a coma.” He died on September 14 in his hometown, Mayajuauev, a couple of miles from Añasco.

After a wake, and then the viewing and cremation on September 19th, she went back to the one-story home of her sister, Elba Quinones. It started to rain, and that night, the lights went out. The next day, water began to enter the apartment. Efforts to bail it out were futile.

“Soon, the water was up to my neck,” she says. Somehow, she was able to find the strength to open the door. “The water outside was up to my neck, too.” But she couldn't leave just yet. “My sister was in danger of drowning.”

So she went back, put one arm around her sister to guide her out of the house, held the family dog, Max, in another arm, waded through the torrents, and found refuge in the second-floor apartment of a friend of her sister, whom she knew only as Juan.

And that's where they lived for two days, September 20th and 21st — subsiding on some water and a bag of pretzels, soaking wet, huddled in a corner, as doors and poles and wires and cars and houses went flying by outside, as the howling intensified — until finally, Hurricane Maria ran its course.

Then, they ventured into a world of knee-high mud and tree trunks and auto parts and made their way to the makeshift shelter at the Isabel Suarez Añasco Elementary School that would be their home for the next eight days.

“At first, I was bugging out,” she says. “And thinking selfishly, 'I want to get the hell out of here. I don't belong here, I belong in New York.'”

Who could blame her? Her three children — Nadine, 44, Stephanie, 40, and Monday, 37 — hadn't heard from her in nine days and didn't know if she was alive or dead. She suffers from lupus and a thyroid condition and didn't have all her medications.

But then a funny thing happened. The tenant activist, organizer and political savant rose to the fore. There were 250 people in the shelter, 15 of them in wheelchairs, and three pregnant women, and she began to take care of the seniors.

“Remember, I had just lost my dad, and so this was my way of honoring him,” she said. “I didn't want to bug out, I wanted to help. 'You cannot break down, lady,' I told myself, 'You cannot do this.'

“There was a 95-year-old man, so I got him cleaned up ... I started using my political pull from New York, talked to social workers, talked to the elected officials who stopped by.”

And lo and behold, conditions in the shelter began to improve. Yes, Maria, has been vicious and catastrophic. But there were angels and kind hearts in Añasco who were laboring mightily to mitigate its ruinous impact.

Before she finally returned to New York, Quinones got a refresher course in the power of faith in times of adversity: “We did a lot of prayers,” he said. “We had a prayer circle. We sang. We kept ourselves sane.”

Make text smaller Make text larger



Image How your neighborhood voted
A Straus News street-level analysis of the Democratic Primary for governor illustrates Manhattan’s fault lines
Image A blue wave on the West Side

By richard barr

It’s usually very rare that an incumbent running for re-election to our State Legislature is defeated. So last week’s primary...

Image Derailing digital deviants
After several Tudor City women were sexually harassed online, two East Side pols crafted a bill that would crack down on threatening behavior in cyberspace
Image City releases per-pupil spending figures
Report shows how much NYC schools expect to spend on each student
Image Love letter to a bygone city
“Crossing Delancey” turns 30, evoking a time before there was a bank on every block


Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters


Local News
Giving for the new year
  • Sep 14, 2018
Local News
The Big Apple takes on composting
  • Sep 10, 2018
Local News
Letters to the editor
  • Sep 12, 2018
Local News
Love letter to a bygone city
  • Sep 11, 2018
Local News
Cosima, reimagined
  • Sep 12, 2018