Puerto Ricans vow to keep Christmas spirit alive amidst devastation

COROZAL, Puerto Rico -- Poised at the entrance of a roadside diner in this northern Puerto Rican town, a Christmas tree is decorated with a depressing assortment of makeshift ornaments: washed-up empty cans, candles and the remnants of government-issued "made ready-to-eat" meals.

Owner Thomas Soto chuckles from behind the bar as a young boy stops to admire the Nativity scene, featuring the holy family draped under a blue tarp stamped "FEMA." In the wake of Hurricane Maria's devastation, the ramshackled holiday decor lends some much needed levity to Soto's restaurant.

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Makeshift ornaments on a Christmas tree at a roadside diner in Corozal, Puerto Rico.

Nicole Sganga / CBS News

"The people right here come crying," he says. "Then they see this tree, and the humor come."

Humor is a prized commodity in Corozal, which is still running on emergency power. With nearly one-third of the electrical grid still offline, many Puerto Ricans rely on generators to light their homes. Soto's diner is no exception.

"We wake up every morning like at 4 o'clock, go to the gas station and buy the diesel," he says.

Soto opened up shop just nine days after Maria made landfall. For Soto, who works as a police officer, serving up pork and rice is more than a part-time gig. "It's a kind of privilege, you know," he explains. "For the people [to] come to eat and have a good time."

He twists the faucet. "No water. You see?" Luckily, he jests, his customers mostly prefer beer.

More than three months have passed since Hurricane Maria first made landfall in Puerto Rico, setting off the worst humanitarian disaster on American soil since Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans in 2005.

Some Puerto Ricans are still buying bottled water in bulk. William Rosada, an amputee from Naranjito who's confined to a wheelchair, relies on water deliveries from friendly neighbors. He points to a black bucket beside the front door -- his backup system. "Para la lluvia," he grins, gesturing towards the sky. For the rain.

In October, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced an "aggressive" rebuilding plan for the island, promising to fully restore electricity by Christmas. The Army Corps of Engineers now predicts power won't be fully restored until May 2018.

Based at a new Joint Field Operations Center west of the capital San Juan in Guaynabo, 2,600 personnel from FEMA and other federal agencies are working through the holidays. Staff members -- including local hires -- gathered for a pep talk and photo op with new Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who had flown in from Washington on Tuesday.

Neither cabinet member toured the damage, meeting instead with officials just outside San Juan. "I don't think you could ever see everything you need to see," Carson said.

For some residents, no words can fully capture the devastation. Carmelo Lima, 66, swept his hand across the view of the mountainside next to his uncle's former home, remembering how paradisiacal the backyard used to be.

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William Rosada

Nicole Sganga / CBS News

"It's real difficult to tell you how it was," he admits. "There was a ranch right here. And there was another one right here." His hand panned across the vista. "And they used to make barbecuing right here. And they used to play dominoes here everyday. And everything was real nice. It was green." What remains now sits crushed under a mudslide.

"We live on generators now," Lima explains before walking down his family's block. After passing the homes of three brothers-in-law and one sister-in-law, he arrives at his doorstep. "I come here everyday, open this gate. And I come down here," he says, hopping down the steep staircase into his basement. "This is everyday for four months I'm doing this. And I got the generator right here."

Many members of Lima's extended family lives back in his native Chicago. But for now, he has no plans to leave Puerto Rico. "We love the land. We love here," he says. "And I don't want to leave. I don't want to leave this land."

Inside his home, Lima points to the corner of his living room. "This is my little Christmas tree. I don't have a big one because we don't have no electricity." For him and his family, the holidays will not bring quite the same joy this time around. "It's going to be a real sad Christmas."

One town over, Carmen Nydia Ortega keeps the holiday spirit alive with Santa cut-outs and a life-size nativity scene flanking her powerless home. She brought out the decorations this year in hopes of cheering up the children. "They get happy from it. They like to hang up the ornaments," she said.

Her Christmas tree lights run on generator power. The garland draped around her windows offsets a split roof she had hoped to repair. FEMA denied her application for funding to fix the roof, determining it was not a critical priority. The government instead provided the Ortegas with a blue tarp, which they hung over the leak.

Deeper into the town of Naranjito, Wilma Torres toured her son's house -- or at least what remains of it. The structure is little more than two stories of wreckage.

"Everything is broken," she cries. "He live here for three years, and this change everything. His life. His boys, his sons. Everything is changed." Amidst the devastation, there are no signs of ornaments or a light-up baby Jesus.

"This is no Christmas. It's no feel like Christmas," Torres adds. FEMA denied her son's application for help, Torres says, because the property title is the second home in her sister's name.

In the treacherous altitudes of Corozal, holiday spirit hides among the shocking devastation. In the belly of one mudslide, a vertical house sits suspended mid-mountain. The bigger shock? Discovering the homeowner survived the drop.

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A home swept away in a mudslide by Hurricane Maria.

Nicole Sganga / CBS News

Survivor Milagros Rodriguez and her uncle, William, now squat in a relative's home in the valley. Rodriguez recalls the escape as though she is reliving it. "The winds were very strong. Then overnight, ground started moving," she explains in Spanish. "I feel a big thunder that shook the earth. And right then, the house went."

Rodriguez says gravity hurled her toward the front of the house, pinning her behind heavy furniture after she banged her head on the wall. "But God let me live, and I was able to get out." She managed to escape out the balcony door. But her nightmare was just beginning. As dirt ran like a river past her house, Rodriguez feared she might be swept away in the storm. Catching onto a patch of nearby grass, she waited out the remainder of the hurricane conditions, praying.

Returning to her land now, she said, breaks her heart. Overlooking her destroyed home, Rodriguez struggled to find the right words.

"What impresses me is the magnitude of the hole," she stutters, hands outstretched over her head in disbelief. "It is a miracle. And God let me live. And he must have a plan for me." Her voice trails off. "And I'm trying to figure it out."

Rodriguez filled out a FEMA application online about a month ago. Weeks later, she received a letter in the mail and promptly sent in additional documents the agency requested.. She has yet to hear back. Beneath the grief, the 56-year-old trusts in faith. Her first name -- Milagros -- means "miracle" in Spanish.  

"It's not easy at this age to start over again. Not easy," Milagros admits, turning to glance back at her house on the hill. "But now, we march forward."

This holiday season, fewer Christmas lights shine on the island of Puerto Rico as people begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives. Yet the bond between families and holiday spirit shine brighter than ever.