Christmas after a hurricane: ‘We still must celebrate the holidays’

Residents in Puerto Rico and the Virgin islands, Houston and the Florida Keys talk about this years challenges shelter, electricity and good cheer to make the best of the holidays

For seven weeks in autumn, images of homes in ruins, trees stripped bare and people wading through floodwaters dominated the news as hurricanes devastated the American south and Caribbean.

The US had never been hit in one hurricane season by storms as strong as Harvey, Irma and Maria, according to modern records, and the areas hit hardest by those intense storms are still far from recovery.

Quick guide

How can I help hurricane victims?

In all the affected regions, local nonprofits and churches continue to collect donations to aid in recovery efforts.

People donated $1m to the United Way in Florida Keys, including a person displaced by Harvey who sent $5 while still living in a shelter in Texas. The nonprofit disbursed much of the money to local charities that provide food, shelter and utilities to people hit hard by Irma including theFlorida Keys Children’s Shelter.

TheUnidos disaster relief and recovery programfor Puerto Rico has provided water filtration systems, medical support, meals, solar lamps, mosquito nets and other supplies to more than 500,000 Puerto Ricans. More than 175,000 people from all 50 US states and 23 countries donated to the group, which has delivered 3.4m lbs of food and water across the island.

In Houston, mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Ed Emmett have established theHurricane Harvey Relief Fund.

In Houston and the Florida Keys, thousands of people still dont have homes. In Puerto Rico, full electricity services have not been restored and those that have power know it can go out at any moment. At least 200 people were killed on the US mainland in the storms and the death toll in Puerto Rico is expected to be hundreds of people higher than the 64 reported by the islands government.

Other islands in the Caribbean were also badly hit.

These catastrophic events unleashed death and destruction but also an outpouring of support from people with no connection to the regions affected. As the holiday season approaches, nonprofits leading the recovery continue to see significant donations that will help provide food, water and shelter to those still in need.

Three months since the trio of storms unleashed life-threatening rain and winds, the Guardian spoke with people on the frontlines of the recovery.

A unique Christmas tree in Vega Alta. Photograph: Norbert Figueroa for the Guardian

Puerto Rico: Christmas lights brighten the dark

Residents like Jessica Fontnez are decorating their houses and powering them with the aid of portable gas-powered generators.

I debated whether to decorate or not since we have no power, but I got motivated to do it right after my nine-year-old daughter asked me, Mom, if we dont have a Christmas tree, where will Santa put all the presents? Now I just use the generator to turn it on for a few hours every day, said Fontnez, who lives in the Caguas municipality.

Fontnez has also moved her traditional Christmas dinner to lunchtime to reduce the impact on her generator.

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At least 100,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island but the 3.3 million who remain have adapted their lives, and now Christmas traditions, to the limits imposed by the storm. Christmas specialities like roasted pork, pasteles and Ron Caita are only available at premium prices and traditionally festive city squares are withholding Christmas decorations because government funds are supporting recovery efforts. The darkness has also inspired debates about decorating with Christmas lights.

In the Vega Alta municipality, the local government did not have money to use on Christmas decorations so it transformed wooden scraps, metal panels and other debris into Christmas trees, ornaments, traditional miniature homes, and cheerful boards. A dead white indigo berry tree that toppled during the storm was placed in the center of the square.

Quick guide

Tropical storm Harvey and climate change

Is there a link between the storm and climate change?

Almost certainly, according to astatementissued by the World Meteorological Organization on Tuesday. Climate change means that when we do have an event like Harvey, the rainfall amounts are likely to be higher than they would have been otherwise, the UN organisations spokeswoman Clare Nullis told a conference. Nobody is arguing that climate change caused the storm, but it is likely to have made it much worse.

How did it make it worse?

Warmer seas evaporate more quickly. Warmer air holds more water vapour. So, as temperatures rise around the world, the skies store more moisture and dump it more intensely. The US National Weather Service has had to introduce a new colour on its graphs to deal with the volume of precipitation. Harvey surpassed the previous US record for rainfall from a tropical system, as 49.2 inches was recorded at Marys Creek at Winding Road in Southeast Houston, at 9.20am on Tuesday.

Is this speculation or science?

There is a proven link known as theClausius-Clapeyron equation that shows that for every half a degree celsius in warming, there is about a 3% increase in atmospheric moisture content. This was a factor in Texas. The surface temperature in the Gulf of Mexico is currently more than half a degree celsius higher than the recent late summer average, which is in turn more than half a degree higher than 30 years ago,accordingtoMichael Mannof Penn State University. As a result there was more potential for a deluge.

Are there other links between Harvey and climate change?

Yes, the storm surge was greater because sea levels have risen 20cm as a result of more than 100 years of human-related global warming. This has melted glaciers and thermally expanded the volume of seawater.

Its free, natural, and local. It looks like a corpse, but what can we do, said Juan Negrn, a resident of Vega Alta who helped deliver the tree to the square. Negrn smiled as he explained how this Christmas reminds him of his childhood holidays in the 1960s, when a small white indigo berry tree, or Tintillo as its known locally, would be decorated like a Christmas tree.

Technologically, weve gone over 15 years back in time after the hurricane. This tree represents that. Still, we must celebrate the holidays; its a tradition we must not lose. We cant stop celebrating because of these natural occurrences, said Negron.

The dead white indigo berry tree in Vega Alta. Photograph: Norbert Figueroa for the Guardian

Three months after Hurricane Maria carved a trail of destruction across Puerto Rico, the island remains cloaked in darkness, with electricity services not expected to be restored until early next year. People there are living in a lingering disaster zone, with acts of daily life defined by the recovery: food cant be stored in refrigerators, traffic lights dont work in many places and restaurants, malls and bars remain shuttered.

Many Puerto Ricans have questioned the sensibility of adding unnecessary energy consumption to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa), especially when so many people still dont have reliable access to a generator, or the money to pay for one.

Prepas director of occupational safety and health, Shehaly Rosado Flores, said extra energy consumption generated by Christmas decorations does not affect their efforts to restore power across the island.

The US Army Corp of Engineers estimated that power would not fully be restored to Puerto Rico until the end of May a full eight months since Maria hit. The most remote areas will likely be the last to have power restored.

There is not enough you can say about the need for electricity. You cant operate society without it, said Jos Caldern, president of the Hispanic Federation, which created the Unidos disaster relief and recovery program for Puerto Rico.

Unidos has provided water filtration systems, medical support, meals, solar lamps, mosquito nets and other supplies to more than 500,000 Puerto Ricans. More than 175,000 from all 50 states and 23 countries donated to the group, which has delivered 3.4mn lbs of food and water across the island.

Caldern said he was uplifted by how many people donated, including people who have no connection to the island and children as young as three and four who he said had sent their allowance. But, three months on from Maria, he is still frustrated by the federal governments response. Caldern said: It is actually criminal what our federal government has done in Puerto Rico.

Houston, Texas: All I want for Christmas is housing

Electricity returned to Houston days after Hurricane Harvey hit, but cheer was still in short supply when two-dozen Houstonians rallied outside City Hall in mid-December to sing a festive song with a twist: All I want for Christmas is housing.

Christmas Day marks exactly four months since Hurricane Harvey made landfall about 200 miles south-west of Houston, dropping 50-odd inches of rain over parts of southeast Texas and causing widespread flooding.

Across the state about 900,000 people applied for federal assistance. Tens of thousands of people in Houston were forced out of their homes. While life is back to normal in much of the area, plenty of properties remain unusable and many residents are still in hotels and other forms of temporary accommodation.

People make their way onto an I-610 overpass after being rescued from flooded homes during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on 27 August 2017 in Houston, Texas. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas Babineaux and his wife, Julie, who have an 18-year-old son, were among those who gathered to call on the city council to distribute more federal relief money quickly to fund housing for low-income families.

They had hoped to move into an apartment in time for Christmas after spending a month in a hotel. They did not leave their home when it was flooded, he said, because they had nowhere else to go. But mould and mildew quickly grew and the couple developed respiratory problems.

After losing all their possessions, it is hard to find money for presents. We had to start out fresh, said Julie, who has breast cancer. We cant really celebrate because weve got to find a way to get a place to stay.

Some displaced families discovered that moving out of flooded places created a new set of challenges. Elsa Bazaldua came to Houston after her apartment in the coastal town of Rockport, a three-hour drive away, was wrecked. But the home where she currently lives with her husband and four children, paying $650 a month in rent after signing a one-year lease, is poorly maintained and the cost of water is extortionate, she said, clutching a bill for $189. She is a cleaner, though not working at the moment, and her husband works in construction. I dont know if were even going to do Christmas this year, she said through a translator.

A home surrounded by floodwaters in Spring, Texas. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

Willie Fegans loves hosting her three daughters and grandchildren for Christmas dinner but this year she is skipping the family tradition. The apartment where she lived for three years with her husband flooded up to knee height and after a spell in a hotel a charity found them a unit at an apartment complex. But the 61-year-old does not feel safe. Im scared to stay there because every day theyre out there shooting, she said. I wont take my family there. Too much violence. I was at home cooking and I heard what I thought was two cars crashing, I went to the door and it was a dude shooting at another guy, he hit a sign and lost control.

They sleep on the floor because they are worried that a stray bullet might fly through the window and hit them while they are in bed, she said.

On Christmas Day, she added, Ill probably go to one of my daughters houses. Bullets dont have no name, dont have no eyes, my family could be there and they could be out there shooting and somebody in my family could get killed. I dont want to take that chance. I havent even thought about gifts for Christmas because Im too busy worrying about getting somewhere to live thats safe.

Festively decorated boats in Key West, Florida on 15 December 2017. Photograph: Carol Tedesco/AP

The Florida Keys: Christmas is more powerful this year

Hurricane Irma skirted Puerto Rico days before making landfall in Florida, where the Keys bared the brunt of the Category 4 hurricane destruction.

Tourist hotspot Key West emerged with minimal damage but three months out from the storm, other Keys islands are still recovering from the housing crisis the storm left behind.

Thousands were displaced from Big Pine Key, Cudjoe Key, Marathon and Ramrod Key where many people lived in mobile homes, houseboats or vulnerable homes that were not up to modern property codes. For some families its probably going to be a year before they are rebuilt, have a place again, said Bill Mann, co-ceo of the Florida Keys Childrens Shelter.

Mann said families are split because people have moved to the mainland, but have jobs in the keys or vice versa or are working more jobs to survive. Mann said one young boy the shelter assisted told them the one thing he wanted most for Christmas was to see his dad, a single father, more often because he is now working a second job.

Damaged homes in Cudjoe Key, Florida on 17 September 2017. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Floridians have donated many toys to the shelter so Mann expected the children the shelter helps will all have presents to open on Christmas day, but families still desperately need grocery gift cards and home improvement gift cards. And tourism, Mann said, because it is a foundation of the regions economy. Caribbean islands that suffered in the storm also rely on tourism and are encouraging people to visit to aid the recovery.

In Big Pine Key, the rebuilding effort is also coming from informal social media networks.

Herv Thomas, who has lived in Big Pine Key since 1998, created a Facebook group to help coordinate the communitys response to Irma. For Christmas, the group organized a surprise for 12 families, including 32 children, hit hard by the hurricane Santa Claus at their door in a fire truck, delivering presents donated by community members.

Last week, a woman who assists children in the domestic abuse system said she needed Christmas presents for seven children. Within three hours people had responded with donations, including paying for a meal for the caretaker.

You cant block good when its on its path, Thomas said.

His home was perfectly intact after the hurricane but just 100ft away, a neighbors home was completely destroyed. He said Big Pine Key looked like a warzone immediately after Irma and that feeling remains in some of the devastated homes.

There are fewer decorations around the Keys and fewer homes to fill with Christmas trees, but Thomas said he felt this Christmas was more powerful than in years past.

You can feel there is something, Thomas said. If I think about it I believe its maybe an answer to the strength of what we went through.

He continued to say Christmas provided some relief. You can drop everything and say its Christmas.

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‘I’ll be here until I die’: Florida Keys residents on life after Hurricane Irma

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All of Texass State-Mandated Lies About Abortion

Women seeking an abortion in Texas are given a mandatory booklet with some facts about the procedurebut the latest version is full of errors.”>

The Supreme Court struck down key provisions of a Texas anti-abortion law in late June, but the Lone Star State still has plenty of tricks left up its sleeve.

First, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission quietly changed its rules to require that abortion providers bury or cremate fetal tissue instead of using standard medical waste disposal services.

And now, as the Texas Tribune reported Wednesday, the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) is planning a new version of A Womans Right to Know, a mandatory booklet that Texas women receive 24 hours before an abortion procedure that is riddled with lies. The revision also ignores recommendations made by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG), an OB/GYN professional association with over 57,000 members.

The Daily Beast reviewed both the original and revised versions of A Womans Right to Know, and found several inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and omissions.

This is a draft booklet, DSHS spokeswoman Carrie Williams told The Daily Beast in response to a detailed request for comment. There is clearly interest in this, and we need to be very thoughtful and diligent in reviewing the comments. Well evaluate the feedback and make revisions as needed to make sure the booklet is clear and accurate for pregnant women."

As it stands, the revised booklet is far from accurate but it does seem clear in its intent to dissuade women from choosing abortion.

Fetal Pain

The original version of A Womans Right to Know claimed that some experts have concluded that the [fetus] is probably able to feel pain at 20 weeks.

This directly contradicts current scientific consensus. A 2005 review in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that pain perception probably does not function before the third trimester [28 weeks] and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that the connections in the brain necessary to feel pain are not intact before 24 weeks.

Given these facts, ACOG told the Texas DSHS that the 20-week claim in the original pamphlet was an ideological rather than scientific perspective.

But instead of removing that claim in the proposed revision, the DSHS placed it on top of the second page in large red font: In consideration of the potential for fetal pain, Texas law currently limits abortion to under 20 weeks.

Abortion Complications

The revised version of A Womans Right to Know devotes substantially more space to detailing possible complications from abortion than it does to complications from childbirth, even though the latter are more common than the former.

On this point, the medical literature is clear. A 2012 study found that the risk of childbirth-related death was approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion. And a large 2014 study from UC San Francisco examined data from 50,000 women and concluded that major complications from abortion occur less than a quarter of one percent of the time, about the same frequency as colonoscopies.

Accordingly, ACOG instructed the DSHS to note that the risks of abortion are less than the risks of carrying a pregnancy to term and delivering in the revised pamphlet. The DSHS did not follow through on that recommendation.

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Abortion and Breast Cancer

The previous version of A Womans Right to Know misleadingly linked abortion to breast cancer but it at least noted that some studies have found no overall risk.

In response, ACOG told the DSHS that this oft-touted link is not supported by current and relevant science, citing an extensive report from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which concluded that having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a womans subsequent risk of developing breast cancer. As the NCI discovered, studies on a possible association between abortion and breast cancer were inconsistent until the mid-1990s but more recent studies with larger samples and better methodologies have consistently showed no association.

Not only did the DSHS keep the section on abortion and breast cancer in the revised booklet, the department deleted the earlier reference to studies that found no overall risk. Instead, the department claims that doctors and scientists are actively studying the complex biology of breast cancer to understand whether abortion may affect the risk.

There is no reference to the NCI report.

Abortion and Infertility

The proposed draft of A Womans Right to Know changes but does not eliminate a section which raises fears about abortions possible impacts on future childbirth.

Some complications associated with an abortion, such as an infection, a cut or a torn cervix, may make it difficult or impossible to become pregnant in the future or to carry a pregnancy to term, this section warns under the ominous heading of Future Infertility.

What the booklet fails to note is the extreme rarity of these complications. According to an ACOG FAQ, the risk of injury to the uterus or other organs is less than 1 in 1,000 during a second-trimester abortion. Complications like these are not necessarily irreversible, either, as infections can be treated with antibiotics and uterine perforations can be surgically repaired.

The childbirth section of A Womans Right to Know acknowledges in a handful of bullet points that complications of vaginal delivery and Caesarean section can affect future fertility, too, but nowhere in this section is there a separate heading entitled Future Infertility.

Abortion Regret

The revised version of A Womans Right to Know also keeps a section in place which mentions that women have reported experiencing regret, grief, lowered self-esteem, sexual dysfunction, avoidance of emotional attachment, and substance abuse after an abortion.

There is no citation for this section.

As ACOG pointed out in its letter to the DSHS, that may be because it is not based on scientific evidence. In fact, a 2015 study in PLOS One which surveyed over 600 women over three years concluded that the predicted probability of [women] reporting that abortion was the right decision was over 99 percent at all time points over three years. Some women did experience negative emotions but these declined over time and as ACOG noted, many of the same emotions can also occur after a miscarriage, and even after a healthy delivery.

The Texas booklet does contain a section on postpartum depression but it also says that women can experience great surges of joy and happiness, feelings of contentment and fulfillment after birth.

Left unmentioned in the revised booklet is the fact that women also experience positive emotions like happiness and relief after abortion, as the 2015 PLOS One study also found. The old version of A Womans Right to Know half-heartedly acknowledged this possibility, noting that some women may feel relief that the procedure is over.

That language is conspicuously absent from the revised version.

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I applaud the abortion decision, but it won’t improve access fast enough | Jennifer Conti

The women I see as an abortion provider in California have safe, convenient access to the procedure. Building that in the south will be a tall order

You dont have to be a woman in rural Texas to realize that something heinous has been happening with abortion politics in our country. In the past few years alone, more anti-abortion laws have been enacted all over the nation than in the entire previous decade combined. And this hasnt translated into fewer or safer abortions. Women, it turns out, will continue to have abortions, even if they have to do it themselves and even if they have to do it dangerously.

To see and hear of these clandestine, pre-civilized medicine approaches to womens care breaks my heart. Women deserve much better. On Monday, when the US supreme court made a national declaration that they too believe in the value of women and their reproductive freedom, it was more than a legal decision or a news headline.

Im an abortion provider, and I see this as a real-life move in the right direction although for many women, reproductive healthcare will continue to be drastically limited because of the damage that has already been done.

I work in California, where women currently face no legislative barriers like those in Texas. I have seen what ideal care should look like. My patients can schedule an abortion without punitive waiting periods. They dont need to get parental consent for a private procedure, and they arent forced to travel hundreds of miles to find a clinic.

As a provider, Im not required to provide counseling based on garbage science tying abortion to breast cancer. I give safe, medically accurate care, without unnecessary and demeaning barriers.

The same hasnt been true in Texas. Before HB2, the law the high court shot down, went into effect, there were 42 clinics that provided safe and legal abortion care. After clinics were required to meet untenable standards as ambulatory surgical units, and providers had maintain unreasonable hospital admitting privileges, that number went down to 19. Had the court ruled the wrong way this week, that number would have been cut in half again. Similar rules across numerous southern states have caused similar patterns of closure. Too often, the level of care I am able to provide in California has been the exception, not the norm.

For the Texas clinics that dug their feet in and held on despite this attack, life now goes back to normal. No more worrying that Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (Trap) laws will close their clinics because of medically unnecessary regulations. Its a huge sigh of relief and joyous return of security they know they will continue to be there for their patients tomorrow.

But for the clinics that werent as fortunate and lost everything, its anyones guess about whether they can rebuild. Starting a new clinic takes finances, infrastructure and nuance like making sure your landlord doesnt hate abortion providers not to mention staff.

There are still 5.4 million reproductive-aged women living in Texas, and the majority of them dont have expedient access to an abortion clinic. In Dallas, for example, long delays mean that it already takes women up to 20 days just to have an initial consultation for an abortion. These women are still at risk for taking matters into their own hands and not being afforded safe medical care because of the zip code in which they live.

I want to be explicitly clear as an obstetrician-gynecologist that every woman deserves prompt access to safe abortion care regardless of where she lives, how she is insured or how much money she earns. Thankfully the court finally backed this message: women deserve dignity and compassion, and unjustified barriers to care will be struck down.

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