Families in Texas and California, Florida’s Keys and Puerto Rico lost their homes to disasters this year and find themselves making do this holiday season in makeshift substitutes.
The wildfires in California, the worst ever, are still burning. Power hasn’t been fully restored in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria inflicted the worst storm in a century. Thousands of Texans are still unable to return to their homes after floods from Hurricane Harvey left them uninhabitable.
Here is a look at how four families struck by disaster are approaching the holidays.
In Houston, Pork Roast for 25 in a Three-Bedroom Townhome
Each year on Christmas, Wayeshia Martin cooks the étouffée, cheese grits and gumbo loved by the dozens of family members who come to her house. This year, though, she’ll be cooking in her cousin’s kitchen and making pork roast, one of her cousin’s family favorites.
Ms. Martin, her husband and three children are living in her cousin’s three-bedroom townhome, now jammed with 10 people and where 25 members of her extended family will gather for Christmas this year instead. The Martins don’t know when they can move back home, which was flooded with nearly 3 feet of water during Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 27.
Ms. Martin is a 31-year-old guard on the graveyard shift at the Houston city jail. Her youngest was just five-days-old when a packed Coast Guard helicopter came to evacuate them during the storm. With limited room in the helicopter, Ms. Martin’s husband, their 11-year-old daughter, as well as Ms. Martin’s mother and sister who were at the house, stayed behind and waded out hours later before they too were rescued.
Separated from her husband and oldest, Ms. Martin and her two youngest were initially taken to the George R. Brown Convention Center with other evacuees. But a few hours later, Ms. Martin’s baby had to be rushed to Texas Children’s Hospital because her breathing became labored.
From there, Ms. Martin and her husband, Courtney, 31, an accessories installer for a Toyota plant, first moved in with her mother-in law. Then they rented an apartment but after that became too expensive, the family recently moved into Ms. Martin’s cousin’s house. They kick in $300 a month for rent, and Ms. Martin tries to help with cooking. Four of them share one room, and Ms. Martin’s oldest shares a room with one of her cousins.
“My three year-old says she just wants to go home,” Ms. Martin said.
--By Dan Frosch
Christmas Without Lights in Puerto Rico
Christmas for Luissette Medina Santiago’s family is usually a boisterous affair. They buy a tree, festoon the house with lights and play bachata and merengue songs. They prepare a feast of pork and rice and beans for Christmas Eve and open presents the following day.
This year—after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. territory’s island of Vieques where Ms. Medina Santiago lives—will be more subdued.
Vieques is still hobbled by scant electricity, so they can’t string lights. They don’t have money for a tree and they are living in a tent on the foundation where their house once stood. Until they save enough money or receive government aid to rebuild, that is their makeshift home.
“We lost everything,” said the 33-year-old school secretary, who has two young daughters. There is one part of her house that remains—the pink bedroom of her daughters, age 7 and 2, whose names, Julliette and Julleiska, were painted on the walls.
Ms. Medina Santiago and her husband—a 30-year-old paramedic—tried to find computer tablets to give the girls as presents but couldn’t find any in stock, so will probably get them dolls instead. The family still plans to celebrate with a traditional pork meal, gathering at her parents’ place along with her brother and his family on Christmas Day.
“It’s not the same,” Ms. Medina Santiago said. But “we will enjoy it as best we can.”
--By Arian Campo-Flores
Working Is Better Than Home in Wine Country
Alice Plichcik will spend Christmas Day working at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where she is a registered nurse in northern California. She volunteered for the shift because working and sharing a meal with co-workers seemed better than spending the holiday in the temporary house where she has been living since the deadly October wildfires reduced her home of 22-years to ash.
“I volunteered to work, I think that’s the best thing for me,” Ms. Plichcik said.
During Christmases past, Ms. Plichcik and her sister who lives with her decorated their house with all the traditional trimmings: a tree, garlands, mercury glass decorations passed down from their great-grandmother, ornaments from their childhood.
“We would decorate everything,” she said, recalling, in particular, a prized collection of handblown glass birds and the glass trees her great-grandmother bought at Woolworth’s.
All those items were lost in the fires.
After weeks at a shelter, Ms. Plichcik and her sister, Susan Carol, are still looking for a rental. For now, they’re staying in an older house nearby with a tarp covering part of the roof, and boards over several windows. “It’s like a refrigerator where we’re living,” Ms. Plichcik said.
--By Erin Ailworth
In Southern California, Eight Children Give Prayers of Thanks
Dozens of people including strangers and anonymous donors have bought the Haggard children socks, pajamas, and Christmas toys on an Amazon.com wish-list.
“It’s remarkable how kind people have been that way,” says Jessica Haggard of holiday plans for her eight children.
Since their home in the Ventura hillside burned Dec. 5, crumbling with hundreds of others in a weekslong Southern California firestorm, Nathan and Jessica Haggard have been staying at the home of Mr. Haggard’s mother.
“We are a little bit of a circus,” says Mr. Haggard, 40, a sales engineer at Apple Inc. “We’re definitely stretched to the max.”
They just found a three-bedroom house in nearby Santa Paula to rent. It is close enough by to keep the children close to their school. But they won’t be able to move in time for Christmas.
From an unfamiliar kitchen, Mrs. Haggard, 40, planned Christmas dinner as well as family holiday traditions to give the children a sense of stability. Mrs. Haggard, who is half French, says she’ll need help carrying on with one southern French tradition: making exactly 13 desserts for Christmas, representing Jesus and the 12 apostles.
A devout Roman Catholic family, the Haggard children say prayers every night. They have made it a point to carry over lessons of kindness and giving into their daily prayers. “When we do our family rosary at night, we have been making sure expressly that we do prayers of thanksgiving for everyone that has helped us, everyone that we know and don’t know, and the generosity of others,” Mrs. Haggard said.
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” her husband added, quoting from a version of the Bible, “has new meaning for us.”
--By Nour Malas
SOURCE: Wall Street Journal