Isabel Rullán still remembers the storm’s terrifying power.
“It was intense,” she tells PEOPLE of Hurricane Maria, which devastated her native Puerto Rico in September 2017. “The window shutters were shaking for 10 hours. The day after that, I remember we looked outside and the landscape looked completely different.”
It quickly became the most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. territory in nearly a century, coming two weeks after the island was hit by Hurricane Irma.
At 155 miles per hour, Maria’s winds knocked out Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and caused close to $90 billion in damage. The island’s famous lush green landscape was ripped apart and many areas resembled a war zone.
“Everything was brown,” Rullán, 31, recalls. “You don’t realize that you’re so used to seeing everything green until you don’t see anything green.”
While Puerto Rico initially attributed 64 deaths to Maria’s onslaught, the government officially raised that number to 2,975 nearly a year later. After the storm, thousands of Puerto Ricans departed the island for the U.S. mainland, exacerbating a problem that Rullán has long tried to remedy through the nonprofit she co-founded, ConPRmetidos.
Over the last two decades, thousands of Puerto Ricans relocated to the states to seek jobs and economic security, particularly after the island found itself in a debt crisis in the tens of billions. In response, Rullán and a group of friends decided to start ConPRmetidos in 2012 to implore Puerto Ricans to stay on the island, or, if they are already overseas, to connect and invest in local businesses.
After Maria, Rullán and ConPRmetidos used their vast network of contacts to help the people and places that were most affected on the island.
“We focused on immediate relief efforts, like giving generators to small businesses that were the community centers for people, like little markets,” recalls Rullán, who was recently honored by Marriott International’s series #LoveTravels Beyond Barriers for her efforts.
The millennial-led nonprofit has since supported community leaders throughout Puerto Rico to help them learn self-sustaining practices to prepare them for future natural disasters.
“We did a lot of connecting people, finding people who wanted to help the island and connecting them to other NGOs so that they would receive the help,” Rullán says.
Today, much of Puerto Rico has recovered. The tourism industry — one of the island’s most important economic staples, said to employee over 63,000 people — is on the rebound, with luxury hotels like the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort reopening last year.
But there are many businesses and residents who are still in need of help.
One of the areas most affected were the island’s farms, which saw 85 percent of its harvests ruined by the storms, according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Agriculture. The department reported crop and agricultural infrastructure losses exceeding $2 billion.
That’s why ConPRmetidos has helped coffee farmers, located in Puerto Rico’s mountainous region, to collect equipment and replant trees in the hopes of replenishing even a small portion of what was lost. Together with local nonprofit PROCAFE, the group intends to distribute fertilizer, cash subsidies and 750,000 coffee tree seedlings to over 500 small coffee farm families on the island.
Coffee has long been a part of Puerto Rico’s culture and economy. Along with sugar and tobacco, coffee was key to the island’s financial growth during the 1800s after trade was opened with nations other than Spain. Today, coffee is the most valuable crop, followed by vegetables, sugar cane and fruits, according to Puerto Rico’s tourism website.
For owners of coffee farms — reachable by narrow roads carved into mountains that are filled with green vegetation as far as the eye can see — tourism is another way they hope to bolster business and bounce back from financial losses caused by the storms.
Still, there’s no hiding that it will take many more years for the island to return to pre-Maria strength.
“We went to New Orleans a little bit after the hurricane,” Rullán says of a trip to Louisiana to learn more about how its citizens recovered after the floods of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “They told us, ‘This is going to be a 10-year rebuilding process, at least, and people are going to forget you.’ “
“People forget [about us] because we’re not in the news,” she adds. “But also because we’re in this situation when we’re not a state and we’re not independent. We were lucky to have a lot of foundations help right after the disaster, but now trying to get them to donate again, it’s a bit more challenging. We’re also not an independent country, so we don’t qualify for international foundations.”
ConPRmetidos is currently raising money through its donation page to support its efforts, and so far has raised more than $4,000 toward its $35,000 goal. But Rullán wants people to know the island is open for business — and by vacationing there, visiting the farms and local fisheries, and taking in the landscapes, tourists will play a major part in this next chapter of Puerto Rico.
“Come visit us, help us move the economy,” Rullán says. “That’s the best way you can help.”