On the 38th day after rushing floodwaters from Hurricane Maria left her neighborhood coated in a mask of gray mud, Carmen Chévere Ortiz received a gift from two Philadelphia women: a night in a hotel.

The mother of six, known by friends as Milly, cried at the sight of the crisp white bedding.

"I knew she needed to get away," said Daisy Lopez, who met Chévere Ortiz while volunteering in Puerto Rico with her fiance, Soraida Perez. "And the only getaway we were able to provide her was a hotel room."

It was a simple gesture, but one that bonded the women. As Chévere Ortiz has slowly helped rebuild her devastated neighborhood in the suburbs of San Juan, Perez and Lopez have supported her from afar, checking in often and sending what money they can.

This week, they gave her a gift reminiscent of their first: a plane ticket to Philadelphia, a few days' escape from the still-daily struggles of life on the island.

"God sent angels. They don't have wings, but they're angels," Chévere Ortiz, 42, said Monday, as the women shared a meal of grilled meats, rice and beans, and fried plantains at the Reading Terminal Market.

From left to right, Soraida Perez, Daisy Lopez, and Carmen“Milly” Chevere Ortiz order lunch at a Puerto Rican food stand in the Reading Terminal Market on Monday, August 6.
Avi Steinhardt
From left to right, Soraida Perez, Daisy Lopez, and Carmen“Milly” Chevere Ortiz order lunch at a Puerto Rican food stand in the Reading Terminal Market on Monday, August 6.

The three met by chance.

Perez, 42, and Lopez, 44, had planned their vacation to Puerto Rico, where both have family, long before Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20. After the storm, they knew immediately they would turn their vacation into a mission trip. They gathered donations and used their savings, loading five suitcases full of batteries, water-filtration straws, matches, tea lights, battery-operated fans, and other supplies. The baggage fees cost more than the plane tickets.

The first day they struck up a conversation with Chévere Ortiz's uncle, who was visiting from California and staying at their hotel near San Juan. He took them to meet his niece in Villa Calma, a neighborhood of Toa Baja, about 10 minutes away.

There, they heard Chévere Ortiz's harrowing story, how she had seen the floodwaters rising from a creek in her backyard and driven through her neighborhood, yelling "Get out! Get out!" over the pounding rain.

Dozens of people followed her to a nearby school, which was on higher ground. And though some warned her about breaking into government property, Chévere Ortiz barely gave a second thought to bashing in the locks. Then, she and others got in kayaks and pulled people from their flooding homes.

Soon, more than 200 people, 16 dogs, eight horses, two cats, one pig, one hamster, and one rabbit were safe in the school — nicknamed "The Ark" by its temporary residents. They ate what they could find in the cafeteria, used curtains as blankets, and set textbooks on fire to keep warm.

Chévere Ortiz, for her leadership both during and after the storm, has become a local celebrity. She was featured in a December article in New York magazine. Chelsea Clinton on Twitter called her an "American hero." Her face is featured on billboards on the island, a part of the Pantene hair-care company's "Strong Is Beautiful" campaign.

But when she met Perez and Lopez five weeks after the storm, none of that praise and little outside help had arrived. The waters had risen to 20 feet in some areas, well into the second floors of many homes. Everything that had been submerged was destroyed, and the belongings pulled out and piled in the streets.

"We saw so many different neighborhoods," Perez said. "And they were the worst off."

Perez and Lopez had planned to stay for a few hours. Instead, they were there all day, brought Chévere Ortiz back to their hotel that evening so she could get a night of good sleep, then returned again in the morning. A few days later, before they left for the airport, they returned and gave Chévere Ortiz nearly everything they had, while vowing to send help until the neighborhood had fully rebuilt.

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As the storm's one-year anniversary nears, Chévere Ortiz said much still needs to be done.

Many homes have been cleaned, using equipment donated by nonprofits and private companies. But she said little FEMA aid has flowed into the neighborhood, because most residents in the poverty-stricken area don't have title to their homes.

Chévere Ortiz said the power came back in March, about six months after the storm. Today, many residents who left for shelters or the mainland have yet to return, their homes still uninhabitable.  A team of volunteers, including Chévere Ortiz's five sons, is moving slowly house to house, power-washing away the dirt and repainting.

Chévere Ortiz's home was among the first repaired, so it has become the neighborhood hub for donations and supplies. A dentist for a time set up a clinic in her living room. A church held Mass in her garage.

All the while, Lopez and Perez have checked in on her from Philadelphia, calling as often as once a week. At the end of every call, they ask her what she needs.

Before Christmas, they sent money for gifts.

Several times, they paid for diesel to power a fridge in the community kitchen, where many of the neighborhood's elderly store their medicine.

Currently, they are raising donations for school supplies, with plans to send Chévere Ortiz back from Philadelphia with an extra suitcase packed with notebooks and crayons and pencils.

"We're in a good spot in our lives where we're able to donate, and I have great friends and family that are able to donate money to our causes," Perez said. "Now she's no longer just someone in Toa Baja. She's our family now. And we love her."

On Monday in Philadelphia, the women climbed the stairs of a double-decker sightseeing bus and settled into the back row. It was Chévere Ortiz's first visit to Philadelphia. But she came to tears when reflecting on her connection to the city, which goes beyond Perez and Lopez.

She said some of the earliest volunteers to arrive in her neighborhood were Philadelphians. The group of about 20 people helped tie blue tarps in place of roofs that had been ripped off. Chévere Ortiz said that in the chaos, she never wrote down their names.

Today, she wishes she could thank them again.

"I'm very grateful for the people of Philadelphia," she said, dabbing her eyes.

As the bus took off, circling City Hall and then heading toward the Art Museum, the women leaned in for a selfie. They angled the camera to get a passing landmark in the background: the Puerto Rican flag hanging along the Parkway.

From left to right, Daisy Lopez, Carmen “Milly” Chevere Ortiz, and Soraida Perez take a selfie as they ride the Big Bus tour down the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia on Monday, August 6.
Avi Steinhardt
From left to right, Daisy Lopez, Carmen “Milly” Chevere Ortiz, and Soraida Perez take a selfie as they ride the Big Bus tour down the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia on Monday, August 6.

How to help

Donations to help in the recovery effort in Villa Calma, Carmen Chévere Ortiz's neighborhood, can be sent to:

Carmen Chévere Ortiz

Calle Buenos Aires 416

Villa Calma

Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, 00949