Netflix Documentary ‘After Maria’ Is A Scathing, Heartbreaking Review On FEMA’s Failures For A Devastated Community
Nearly two years after Hurricane Maria reduced the bustling island of Puerto Rico to literal shambles and took 3,000 lives, not much has changed. No major news outlets have followed up with families. It feels as if they think the crisis has been resolved.
Director Nadia Hallgren is giving Americans a look into the ongoing disaster on the island. In the just 37 minutes of “After Maria,” we follow several Puerto Rican women who fled PR for FEMA-assisted housing in the Bronx. We glimpse into their highs–watching 43-year-old Glenda Martes blowing out her birthday candles with a cheerful child shouting, “I wish to have an apartment!” The film covers the eight weeks leading up to when FEMA housing expires, forcing the women and their families to become homeless in the Bronx.
Nadia Hallgren opens up with a glimpse into the lives of the women as they knew it, before Maria.
Hallgren was living in Los Angeles when she first learned that the Bronx would become the hub of the newest influx of migration from Puerto Rico. She knew she had to go back to her home in the Bronx.
Hallgren features three matriarchs who have made a home away from home on the fourth floor in a Norwood hotel.
We meet their children. We see the single room an entire family is crammed into after fleeing the island. It is a stark and powerful look at how much has changed for the people on the island after a devastating natural disaster.
Before Hurricane Maria, they lived in their homes, with family around them.
Hallgren told The Guardian that the families opened up their lives to the documentary because it was so rare that anyone “would care so much about their whole story and their whole lives – who they were before the storm happened and what’s happened after, the investment in the long-term, and the hope that things do get better for them.”
True to its namesake, “After Maria” isn’t about the hurricane itself.
It’s not about its brute strength or the experience of Puerto Ricans as they lived through it. It’s everything that came after that devastated the island.
Governor Ricardo Rosselló told them to prepare for two weeks of no access to food, water, or electricity.
Those two weeks came and went. They were shocked to realize that this would become the new normal in Puerto Rico. One woman lived in a house without a roof for two months before FEMA came by. She said it felt like the rats and snakes started to take over her home.
We see Glenda and Kenia rewatch Trump throwing paper towels in disbelief.
“Trump came to throw paper towels to soak up our tears,” Glenda says through tears. It was just a moment in the long story of how the U.S. has failed Puerto Rico, an island of U.S. citizens.
Then, they move to the Bronx out of desperation.
Living in their ravaged homes in Puerto Rico was akin to living without a roof over their heads. These women all found themselves in The Bronx because FEMA offered hotel vouchers to house victims–allegedly until their homes were rebuilt in Puerto Rico. This never happened.
Kenia’s 11-year-old daughter, Nilda, arguably suffered the worst.
She tells Hallgren that the kids at school make fun of her for speaking Spanish. Hallgren grew up with all her friends in Puerto Rico. She never felt like she didn’t belong.
Her PTSD from the storm becomes so bad, she starts pulling her own hair out.
Throughout the documentary, we see a completely shut-down pre-teen, ignoring the world around her. She eventually goes to see a psychologist, who tells Kenia the obvious: things will only get better for Nilda when she can feel safe and her life is more stable.
As FEMA vouchers come to an end, we see Glenda calling Section 8 housing to no avail.
We see women doing the footwork to regain some stability. “After Maria” shows us in real time how the government failed to treat Maria victims like they’ve treated Harvey and Katrina survivors in the past.
The mistreatment has led them to believe that it’s to an end–to force Puerto Ricans out of the United States.
That just makes Sheila all the more adamant that they can make it here. She reminds her friends that they’ve lived through worse. Not to mention, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens are entitled to the same protections and privileges as all other citizens.
Amidst the relentless anxiety that being displaced with a timeline on your housing causes, there are moments of joy.
Like when Nilda celebrated her 12th birthday just three days before they knew they would have to move out of the hotel. Still, they didn’t know where they were going.
We see the banters of a mami-hija relationship, strained by PTSD.
Nilda and her mother have been living in a hotel room together for the last six months. We see Kenia cooking on boilerplates, asking Nilda to go fetch more ice from the lobby.
As soon as her mom starts to get a little “Dios mio,” Nilda pipes up.
Kenia showers her daughter with the love and affection we’re all too familiar with. We’ve all been at this moment. Most of us haven’t been on the brink of homelessness because our government doesn’t care about us.
We learn that Kenia’s father died in Puerto Rico a month after they arrived in the U.S.
She couldn’t go back to Puerto Rico to say goodbye. Officials told her that he died of natural causes but she thinks it’s because of the lack of food, clean water, and communication available to him.
Kenia and Nilda return to Puerto Rico, months later, to bury Kenia’s father.
We see how Puerto Ricans are experiencing a lack of resources from the U.S. government. The Trump administration has provided fake numbers about the amount of relief that has been sent to Puerto Rico. President Trump even told a rally in Florida that Puerto Rico is getting more aid pitting two communities against each other for necessary aid.
The government offered no permanent housing solutions, as they’ve done with Harvey and Katrina survivors.
There is no happy ending, or neat bow-tie to end this story. That’s the point. It’s ongoing.
Kenia and Nilda just moved into an apartment placing the day before the documentary was released.
Their home was never rebuilt. The filmmaker tells Amny that, “NYC took on these families. They’re here in city shelters. The government really just dropped the ball. The crisis isn’t over for anyone.”
The documentary wrapped a year ago. The sentiment and reality below are still true.
In an interview with Amny, Hallgren shares the complexity of the situation, “The families are still in shelters now. What’s especially difficult for them is the language barrier. They come to New York City and don’t understand the language so part of them trying to find their footing here is even just learning how to speak English as an adult.”
She goes on to say what we all already know, “We all know how hard it is to get housing in NYC even if you earn a living wage. Resources that the city has for people in need is just busting at the seams already. The city is trying to support thousands of residents who are coming from the trauma of living through a natural disaster. They come with emotional baggage that the city is not prepared for.”