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After surviving a hurricane, 'Betzy' Santiago Burgos strived to make it in Central Florida. Then she was murdered

Losing María

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Last September, Hurricane María changed everything. The cyclone hit the U.S. territory with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour, knocking out the power grid for the entire island and destroying access to clean water. Exactly how many U.S. citizens perished in the catastrophic aftermath is still unknown; the Puerto Rican government's official death toll stands at 64, though a recently released Harvard study found that at least 793 and as many as 8,498 fatalities could be attributed to María's aftermath. (The midpoint number, 4,645, has been widely reported.)

Santiago Burgos said her husband began abusing her shortly after they got married a year ago; sometimes, he would make her sleep on the floor. After María, it got worse. By December, Santiago Burgos told her mother she couldn't take the humiliation anymore. Her daughter would beg her to eat, pointing to her ribs, visible beneath her skin.

"I told her, 'Mami, send me the plane tickets,'" Santiago Burgos told me a couple weeks before her death. "I have to get out of here because he wants to kill me."

Women, especially poor women with children, are particularly vulnerable after natural disasters, says Betty Morrow, a disaster sociologist and professor at Florida International University.

"The gender inequalities that already existed before the storm become exacerbated after the disaster," she says.

Women are subjected to more domestic violence after a disaster, and frustrated parents lash out at their kids, leading to increased reports of child abuse. Morrow says people become increasingly vulnerable as recovery efforts drag out. After Hurricane Andrew hit Miami in 1992, spousal abuse calls to a local helpline increased by 50 percent, and out of 1,400 surveyed residents, about a third said someone in their home lost verbal or physical control in the two months after Andrew, according to the Gender and Disaster Network.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and catastrophic flooding in Baton Rouge in 2016, local advocates saw that domestic violence survivors were "extremely vulnerable" to the effects of natural disasters, says Mariah Stidham Wineski, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"When you have a natural disaster like María that takes out the infrastructure of an entire area, it makes it incredibly difficult for survivors to get to law enforcement," she says. "Because law enforcement are concentrating on rescue efforts, abusers know this and they take advantage. They feel emboldened by this lack of solid infrastructure. Imagine trying to get a protection order enforced when they can't even find the order because the courts are flooded."

Santiago Burgos and her two youngest children came to live with her mother in Leesburg and eventually ended up in Kissimmee, where her brother Juan Santiago lives. Santiago Burgos applied for FEMA's Transitional Shelter Assistance program, which provides short-term hotel vouchers for evacuees who aren't able to return home after a disaster. She moved into a Super 8 motel room with her kids and her mother.

There, she met Desiree Torres and about 60 other families who had fled the conditions in Puerto Rico. Torres got Santiago Burgos a construction job with company working on the new Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land at Walt Disney World. They shared food and leaned on each other for support during the stressful two weeks each month when FEMA reconsidered their case for continued hotel assistance. While most were approved, each month, some families were evicted. A few had no choice but to go back to Puerto Rico. Osceola County doesn't have an emergency homeless shelter. Affordable housing in the area is scarce and hard to obtain – sometimes, landlords asked for two to three times the amount of rent as a security deposit.

It was here, through these cracks of insecurity, that Leumás Moraza slipped into Santiago Burgos' life.

They had met each other 14 years ago in Kissimmee, back when Santiago Burgos was still married to the father of her last two children. Her brother Juan says Moraza, who he considered family, pursued his sister romantically even then.

"My sister never [responded] with love," Juan Santiago says. "They never had a relationship. She only offered him a beautiful friendship that he refused to accept."

When Santiago Burgos fled Puerto Rico, she connected with Moraza, 38, who already lived here, and he offered to help. He purchased her plane ticket when Santiago Burgos decided to come back to Florida after a brief return to Puerto Rico. He bought her gifts and household items. He tried to win over the kids with concert tickets.

"This is my best friend," Santiago Burgos told me April 16, as Moraza stood next to her. "He's really been my support. He's helped me out a lot."

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