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East Harlem monument honors Hurricane Maria victims

Monument at East Harlem apartment complex honors Hurricane Maria victims
Monument at East Harlem apartment complex honors Hurricane Maria victims 02:15

NEW YORK - Wednesday marked six years since the deadliest storm to ever strike Puerto Rico made landfall.

Hurricane Maria was the second Category 5 to hit the island that month, two weeks after Hurricane Irma. Boricuans in East Harlem continue to honor those lost.

With supplies already depleted from the previous storm, thousands died when Maria struck, waiting for help without electricity.

Electrical mechanic Walter "Gualterio" Alomar spent three months in the aftermath repairing power lines.

"I never saw destruction like that," Alomar said. "I've seen things like that on television and in movies, and you see it. It was like a wasteland."

Alomar also serves as president of the nonprofit Organization for Culture of Hispanic Origins, or OCHO. When he returned home, his mission became a monument to commemorate 4,645 lives lost between the two storms.

Two years ago, the tribute was finally installed at the Taino Towers apartment complex in East Harlem, a haven of heritage honoring the island with murals throughout its courtyards.

"That's one of the reasons why I have the monument, so that I never forget," Alomar said, "and so that the community will never forget the devastation of what took place, and unfortunately, there's still a lot of issues taking place on the island."

OCHO could not hold an anniversary event due to construction at the complex, mirroring challenges in the effort to rebuild in Puerto Rico. On last year's anniversary of Maria, Hurricane Fiona swiped away much of the work that had been done. Alomar estimates an entirely new power grid would cost $20 billion.

"Six hundred schools have closed over the last ten years," he noted, "and there's still many electrical problems on the island."

OCHO recently bought one of those closed schools. Alomar is raising money to turn it into a mental health center, the demand for which has increased dramatically.

"The overall state of the island is not in our hands," Alomar said. "It's in the hands of an alien government, so in the meantime, that's what we can do here in order to try to create somewhat better conditions for the people."

The monument stands as a reminder to Boricuans that the sun shines through after the storm.

OCHO will be hosting a community event Oct. 21 to raise funds for the mental health center they plan to open in Puerto Rico. To learn more, click here.

Have a story idea or tip in Harlem? Email Jessi by CLICKING HERE.

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