Puerto-Rican Mom Who Had to Shelter Her Husband with Cancer Under Tarp Gets New House

Hundreds of New York City first responders and union tradesmen have repaired or rebuilt more than 315 homes on the island for free

Heart 911
Ramon Rodriguez and Carmen Hernandez. Photo: Henry Hung

After Hurricane Maria whipped through Puerto Rico in September 2017, it ripped the roof and two walls from the mountain home of Carmen Hernandez, leaving her and her family to live under a government-issued blue tarp and with no electricity for 15 long months. There was no money to make much-needed repairs, and with her husband undergoing cancer treatments, “I was going into depression,” says Hernandez.

Then her world suddenly turned around. Enter Ramon Rodriguez, an actor best known for his role in Showtime’s The Affair, and Bill Keegan, a retired lieutenant with the Port Authority Police of New York.

Keegan’s non-profit HEART 9/11 — a band of volunteer firemen, police officers and union tradesmen, most from New York City, ultimately working with more than $500,000 raised by Rodriguez — had been on the ground in Puerto Rico just five days after Maria hit.

Keegan found Hernandez, 64, a mom of six with several grandchildren, hugging her daughter, who has severe autism, and her husband, who had a giant cancerous growth on his nose. Although HEART 9/11 had a wait list, Keegan, 64, made the Hernandez family home in Morovis an immediate priority.

“There was no wall at the back of the house, no electricity, a plastic comforter so the little grandchildren didn’t get wet when it rained,” recalls Keegan in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, “and this woman lovingly rocking her daughter. She didn’t ask for anything. Some things just reach out and touch you.”

A team of more than 20 worked 14 straight days to build Hernandez a new house — complete with flower boxes — for free. The builders even bought the family groceries. “I knocked on so many doors for help,” says Hernandez. “For them to come in, it was the light at the end of the tunnel.”

To be sure, Hernandez is among the lucky. More than two years after Maria smashed into the island, an estimated 30,000 homes still don’t have roofs. HEART 9/11 has replaced more than 315 roofs and complete homes for free in mountain towns and underserved areas of San Juan with $2.4 million worth of construction materials. All the houses HEART 9/11 now work on are so weakened they require a complete rebuild, Keegan says.

Rodriguez, with family on the island, joined forces with Keegan weeks after Maria hit. “When you see your island beat up, it’s heartbreaking,” says the 39-year-old Rodriguez, who worked with his “best pal,” actress Rosie Perez, on fund-raising. “We just want to provide a solution. This is about helping human beings.”

Heart 911
Henry Hung

That’s exactly why Keegan started HEART (for Healing Emergency Aid Response Team) 9/11 in 2007. Keegan had been a night operations commander at Ground Zero, overseeing rescue and recovery following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

After retiring in 2005, he wanted more purpose in life, asking himself, “What do we do with this trauma and loss from 9/11?” and came up with the idea of volunteer emergency-response work. HEART 9/11 teams have rebuilt homes in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there and other disaster-struck areas.

RELATED VIDEO: Remembering Hurricane Maria

Days after Hurricane Dorian made landfall in September, Keegan was on a plane to the Bahamas with a team of volunteers to start work there. With an estimated 40,000 homes in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas still needing work, Keegan expects HEART 9/11 to be in both places indefinitely.

Back in Morovis, Hernandez faces new challenges with a recurrence of her husband’s cancer, yet she brims with love for her angels. “I wish any family who lost a house to not lose faith,” she says. “HEART 9/11 is always where they’re needed.”

To help go to heart911.org.

For more on HEART 9/11, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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