Wilma Gonzalez is an editorial assistant at REALTOR® Magazine. In addition to taking on the occasional writing project, she helps manage the magazine's Good Neighbor Awards.
When an Island Tragedy Strikes
REALTOR® Omayra Borges risked her own life to rescue storm victims after Hurricane Maria.
August 30, 2018
REALTOR® Omayra Borges remembers the sound of the heavy winds and rain as the walls of her condo began pulsing. Then the glass from her windows crashed to the floor, and rain poured quickly into her concrete building. It was Sept. 20, 2017—the day Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.
In the heat of the moment, Borges worried not for her own safety but for the well-being of the island’s inhabitants. “My biggest fear was having no electricity and clean water [on the island],” she says. “No electricity means no power to call family members, refrigerate insulin, no dialysis and other medicines for the sick, no water to drink, bathe, and flush toilets.” Maria tore through the center of Puerto Rico, destroying electrical towers and crippling 95 percent of the island. Most of the 3.3 million residents were left without power, and emergency services were unreachable. “We have been through hurricanes before, but Maria was different: stronger, louder, and more destructive,” says Borges.
Borges saw shredded structures and buildings that were sliced in half like open-top dollhouses. A car, whipped by the winds, landed upside-down next to her home. While many shell-shocked residents hunkered down in their damaged homes, Borges had the opposite response: “I have to help rescue my people. I know this island like the back of my hand,” she says, reflecting on Maria’s immediate aftermath.
Standing Up for Puerto Rico
After the winds calmed, Borges began walking through the filthy, stagnant floodwaters, knowing people needed help. Men, women, and children were crying, clutching framed family photos and begging for someone to help them find their loved ones. One thing Borges knew for sure was that assistance—essential resources like fuel and drinking water—would not come quickly enough. The impassable roads would make transportation difficult. “My [initial] focus was to figure out what information needed to be communicated and to whom,” says Borges.
She discovered a few people with cell service. “I collected phone numbers, and I asked random strangers to help me let the families know we are alive,” says Borges. She couldn’t stop thinking about the sick, elderly, and disabled, especially those living in remote mountain villages where many depend on government assistance. “My immediate reaction was to use my volunteering expertise along with my 19 years as a REALTOR® to begin the recovery process,” says Borges.
Well before Maria hit, Borges had already logged two decades as a volunteer for projects focused on helping cancer patients, pediatric hospitals, and the homeless. Borges founded Run Like a Lola, an annual 5K and 10K half-marathon, which, in 2017, involved 600 volunteers and raised more than $10,000 for the pediatric oncology unit of Hospital Pediátrico.
Hope for Recovery
Within a few weeks of the storm, Borges met someone via Facebook who would become an important partner. Wilson Santiago-Burgos, then an adjunct professor in environmental sciences at Universidad del Turabo, was also leading hurricane recovery efforts. By December of 2017, the two had co-founded the nonprofit Fundación Mochileando 100x35 for hurricane relief. “Omayra leads all the projects in the field. She identifies the hardest-hit communities and engages with community leaders,” says Santiago-Burgos. “When you have the leaders with you, then you can help the community better.”
The group has raised more than $1.1 million in cash and donated goods, repaired 600 homes, and helped 45,000 people. The foundation has reached donors globally. “We were receiving items and donations from people all over the United States and the world,” says Borges. “We take pictures [of our work] and put them on Facebook so people are aware of where the resources are going.”
“I want to make sure that in the event of another tragedy of this magnitude, people would be prepared.” –Omayra Borges
As an expert in logistical planning, Borges recruited 270 volunteers in the six months after the storm and found a way to deliver 80,000 pounds of food, 25,000 bottles of water, 1,000 water filters, construction materials, generators, medicine, and even Christmas presents to help bring some normalcy to the island’s children. “The hurricane revealed how much poverty is in the center of the island, where there was little electricity to begin with. Most residents have little to no income, and they can’t buy anything to fix things themselves,” says Santiago-Burgos.
A Mission of Dedication
But nothing compares to her fearless response in the immediate aftermath. In the frantic two months after the storm, Borges, Santiago-Burgos, and other volunteers would drive together to the mountains every couple of days, navigating around landslides and blocked roads. They became a crucial lifeline for remote residents.
One day, Borges found resident Don José in his house, which was flooded with seven inches of water. He had lost everything, including his dog. Crying with his hands over his head, the man begged, “Help me survive!” Volunteers promptly cleaned up the flood damage and repaired his roof—and mercifully, his lost dog reappeared that evening. “Doing this kind of work brings miracles,” says Borges.
Marisol Fuste of Bartolo, a mountain village with a population of 1,300, cries when she describes her gratitude toward Borges and the 25 volunteers who rebuilt her house. “My house was made of wood and zinc, and it collapsed with the hurricane. All we had were the clothes on our backs,” says Fuste. During the cleanup, Fuste mentioned that the planning of her daughter’s quinceañera—an important tradition in Puerto Rican culture—was disrupted by the storm. Borges surprised them a week later with a beautiful dress, crown, cake, and party supplies. “Omayra is now part of our family,” says Fuste. “She is a special person who helps [relieve] the inner hurt of people and will go to great lengths to bring happiness.”
Sometimes, Borges says, it’s not just material help that people need. “All these people needed to mourn, to vent to someone about their experience of loss. Everyone had lost something or someone,” she says. Even after all she has accomplished, Borges tears up about those she couldn’t save. She remembers a cancer patient who lost his roof and was soaked through his clothes when she met him in a remote town near San Sebastián eight months after the hurricane. “He ended up passing away four days after we arrived to fix his roof,” says Borges.
A year after Maria struck the island, the foundation’s work continues. Houses are still being repaired and rebuilt. Borges is determined to make these homes more resilient—to reduce the harm to buildings and people when the next storm arrives.