Wish Book

Their home was destroyed by a hurricane while they were inside. Miami came to the rescue

Sian Garcia still vividly remembers the sound of Hurricane Maria landing on her family’s small house on St. Croix more than a year ago.

“Like a helicopter. Woof, woof woof,” she said.

Over the next five hours, she and her four children crouched in a bathroom. They pushed a kitchen cupboard against a broken window to keep the storm out, and pulled a couch over them in the bathtub. But the thumping returned again and again.

Several times, Garcia crawled out to see if the coast was clear, only to witness ferocious winds spinning furniture and insistently peeling back her roof bit by bit.

“I started praying,” she said. “When it got really bad, I gave up because there’s nothing you can do. I tied the baby on to me.”

When the hurricane finally passed, headed for a more fatal blow in Puerto Rico, houses and trees all around the home Garcia’s mother-in-law built before her death were flattened. For nine days, the family slept in a lean-to Garcia fashioned from a sofa and a tarp. With no fuel, they searched for food and water on foot, eating canned food left by the military.

When they tried to evacuate with others on government planes, Garcia said she was told she’d have to repay $800 per ticket, or $4,000. So they stayed put.

“We just kept waiting for help,” she said. “It was horrible.”

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How to help: Wish Book is trying to help this family and hundreds of others in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.

Finally, she heard about a Royal Caribbean ship sent to rescue people with medical conditions. For the first time in her life, Garcia was thankful for her son’s asthma.

More than a year later, Garcia, her husband and children have restarted their lives in Miami and made remarkable progress. They’re renting a small house in Liberty City near Miami Northwestern Senior High.

Savannah, their 15-year-old, won a coveted spot as a physical trainer at the Overtown Youth Center and is coaching cheerleading. The three younger kids have settled into school and preschool. Garcia’s husband, who was enrolled in his last semester in HVAC training in Atlanta when Maria hit, finished and landed a job in Miami.

And Garcia, who had been enrolled in nursing school in St. Croix and is expecting a baby girl in March, is busy shepherding Joshua through his 5000 Role Models program, keeping second-grader Kyoko up to speed on math, her favorite subject, and chasing after 2-year-old Menelik.

The family’s determination is what inspired the Chapman Partnership, which temporarily housed them in its Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust’s Homeless Continuum of Care program, to nominate them for the Herald’s Wish Book. But it’s also made Garcia reluctant to ask for more help.

“We have everything. We have a roof. We have food. All this furniture was donated. We’re so grateful,” she said. “We just want our story out there. I don’t care about the donations and stuff. I wanted people to see how Miami adopted us.”

Had it not been for $1,600 a month in rent, and an hourly commute, Garcia and the kids may never have ended up in St. Croix. After her husband’s mother passed away, it seemed like a logical move. Garcia, who had worked at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, would move to the family house with the kids and enroll in nursing school at the University of the Virgin Islands while her husband finished his classes, she said.

“We started school together to make a change for our children,” she said.

But Garcia, who is from Trinidad and had lived in New York before moving to Atlanta, had no experience with hurricanes.

When warnings for Irma were issued, she stocked up on supplies and hunkered down. The house survived. So when Maria took aim at the island two weeks later, she expected the same.

“I did everything I thought I had to do. I never expected the hurricane to come inside,” she said.

She also never expected to leave the island. But the days that followed were grim, with little food or water, no dry place to sleep and no family to turn to. Her husband, she said, had been in a car accident just before the storm so he couldn’t get to the island.

When she heard about Royal Caribbean’s rescue ship, Garcia said she lined up with others on the island — as did almost everyone from her rural neighborhood five minutes from the beach whose homes were destroyed. She nearly lost her place when organizers said she needed documentation of her son’s illness and she raced to a clinic for paperwork.

But once on board, Garcia said the family was never so happy.

“I expected to be in one room with my kids. They gave us three rooms joined together. Each child had their own bed,” she said.

For the first three days of the five day trip, they ate and slept and ate and slept.

“After you don’t eat for nine days? Everybody on that boat ate,” she said.

When they arrived in Miami, a childhood friend spotted Garcia and the kids on TV leaving the ship and immediately called and invited them to stay with her in her apartment. But after nearly five months, Garcia said building management said they needed to leave.

Chapman stepped in, provided space in a family dorm and started coordinating needs: supplies, schools, counseling for the kids who needed help dealing with the trauma, and a job for Garcia with the Overtown Beautification team, the blue-shirted street-cleaning crews. Her first week, Garcia said she was promoted to team leader.

The job helped the family save up for the small three-bedroom, one-bath house. But in May Garcia had to leave after she was injured when she slipped on a storm drain.

While she’s hesitant to ask for any more, Garcia said a constant demand in her growing family is school uniforms and clothes. The kids seem to outgrow them faster than she can replace them. She also has only a few warm things, jackets or sweaters they can wear to school. And with the new baby on the way, baby supplies including a crib and car seat will be added to the list.

For the foreseeable future, Garcia said she’s hoping to make Miami her new home, and give back.

“I’ve never seen a place that helps as much as Miami. And that’s made a difference to me because I’ve always helped in food drives and in churches,” she said. “Here you just show up. That’s crazy.”

How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (The most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at Miamiherald.com/wishbook .

Among the many, many casualties left in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastating path in 2017 was the tiny Virgin Island house shared by Sian Garcia, Jeff George and their four children. George’s motherAfter the storm plowed ashore, the family sought refuge in Royal Caribbean rescue boat that brought the family to Miami, where they spent nearly a year in a Chapman Partnership shelter for families. With help from the charity and money saved from Sian’s $15-an-hour job, they were able to save enough to move into a three bedroom, one bath apartment. But their struggles are far from over.

Jenny Staletovich is a Florida native who covers the environment and hurricanes for the Miami Herald. She previously worked for the Palm Beach Post and graduated from Smith College.