Don’t Forget Puerto Rico

If you had people, friends or relatives in Puerto Rico when Maria attacked with devastating ferocity, this scenario may sound familiar:

“It took over 40 phone calls, messages and weeks of trying to find out if my family was still alive.”

According to the US Census, about 3.3% of RI residents were from Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican decent in 2010, and that percentage may be approaching 6% now – more than double the average for the country. Many Rhode Islanders are being impacted by Maria’s wake, as far away as it may seem. We asked a couple of people who have family on the island to share their experiences.

“It’s surreal to have everyone you love so deeply affected by a storm you didn’t feel a breath of. There are almost no phones or computers that are working, so communications – from outside the island and on the island – are extremely difficult,” says Ashley Mercado, a Rhode Island resident whose family lives in PR. “I have a friend who was used to speaking with her mom every day – they both live in Puerto Rico, but it took them eight days to connect after the hurricane and find out if the other was okay.”

There are also significant obstacles to getting news from the outside world – possibly one reason social networking hasn’t been as impactful in getting the word out as in other recent disaster areas.

“In a lot of US cities, you’d find far more looting and protest. You’ve got to hand it to folks from Puerto Rico – I have a friend down there who says they’ve mostly kept their heads down and tried to get through. They’re fighting desperation, but they’re not adding to the destruction.”

Mercado plans to fly to Puerto Rico later this month. Her suitcases will be packed with telecom equipment and batteries, plus some board games and “hip-hop and glitter,” she says, pointing out that without electricity or cleared transportation routes, and with an aggressive curfew, there’s also a shortage of things to cheer the spirits or occupy the mind after dark.

Of course, what fits in one person’s suitcase can’t help with some streets where drainage backwash is producing tides of fecal matter – a friend told Mercado about one such drift 8 feet deep.

Many other helpful items face prohibitive shipping charges – or may not get delivered at all. “There are solar-powered fans my friend’s daughter’s school tried to order – the equipment was about $110 per unit, but the shipping would be over $200 each.” Shipping and airline corporations have been known to help with deliveries to disaster-torn areas in the past, but the opposite seems to be happening here so far.

“They need people with expertise in repairing after a war zone, because that’s what it’s like. But no one I’ve been able to reach has seen any FEMA personnel or work crews [check out this video of hundreds of FEMA staff enjoying dinner and drinks at a posh hotel in PR, not straying out to disrupted areas: https://www.facebook.com/india.colon/videos/1620297788028440 ].

“So they are focusing on fixing what they can. Imagine you’re a telecom repair person. If you’re looking to fix the entire $200 million system, you can’t. But you can go up to an individual pole. You replace the small components so you can have a functional system in one small part of the big picture. That’s what is happening down there – they’re rebuilding with Band-Aids, and you have to figure out where you put those Band-Aids first. D batteries and tampons and fundamental supplies, leading up to restoring health care and transfusions and more,” says Mercado.

Bienvenido Velazquez, who has worked as a special education teacher in the Providence School System for the last 11 years, is from Puerto Rico. His wife and granddaughter are on the island.

An unassuming gentleman in his 50s, with a gentle, patient manner and a playful wisp of white beard, Velazquez told us about his brother-in-law from the town of Guayama, Puerto Rico, Santos Rosario, an “outgoing person, church-going and friendly to everybody – he was a factory worker, and moved back when he retired.”

Velazquez’ wife and granddaughter flew down to support Rosario and his wife as Rosario prepared for cardiac bypass surgery. He was at a hospital in nearby Cayei, being prepped when Maria hit. The family was with him. Concerns about the hurricane lead hospital staff to defer the surgery. Then the hospital lost power. Without power, the surgery couldn’t be done – but the 70-year-old Rosario was not directed elsewhere, or given an alternative.

“They told him that he would be fine, that he could – should – go home.” So they went home.

About a half hour after getting back, Rosario complained of chest pains and suddenly told his wife, “I need to lie down.” She tried to contact police or an ambulance, but with limited phone service, could not get through to any. There was not enough gas in the car to get anywhere (lines at the few gas stations in their area that had gasoline were about five hours long), and the streets were still mostly impassable.

“She hiked to the nearest police station to get help – to get to the EMTs,” Velazquez describes an arduous journey through ruts, wreckage and debris. When she returned with help, her husband’s heart had given out. He had passed away.

“So many friends and relatives could not come to the funeral. They had to bury him the next day, because the funeral homes also had no power,” says Velazquez.

“I found out from my granddaughter – she was able to get a phone on the Claro network, which is the only one working in their area right now. It wasn’t until yesterday that I managed to contact my wife,” he says, speaking to us almost three weeks after Maria made landfall. Velazquez’ wife and granddaughter, ready to return to RI, are instead staying in PR for the foreseeable future. “The prices of airfare are so much higher – I think it’s about five times what a ticket normally costs. We are trying to figure out how to afford to fly them back,” he explains.

Mr. Rosario’s death – technically at home and from natural causes – will not be part of any hurricane-related fatality statistics. “I think they didn’t want him to die at the hospital,” Velazquez suggests. How many similar cases are going unscrutinized throughout the crisis?

Puerto Rico and Rhode Island have more in common than might meet the eye. Before Maria, people could traverse the island in about 2 and a half hours. With a population of 3.4 million, PR is about three times the population of RI. “People pack a lunch if they’re going to travel over a bridge, just like here,” notes Mercado.

pr picWhat can you do to help?

Don’t ignore Puerto Rico. “Being aware of what’s happening there and being ready to carry that awareness to others is a way of helping,” Mercado suggests. She also supports writing your congressperson using tools like resistbot.io (petitions.moveon.org also offers some). One specific ask – request Congress support a temporary repeal of the Jones Act, an arguably obsolete law requiring ships carrying goods between US ports be manned primarily by American citizens, which both hampers other nearby countries trying to send aid and helps produce the outrageously high prices involved in shipping to the territory.

There are also ways to donate funds, like oneamericaappeal.org, and personal GoFundMe programs that directly help people living in Puerto Rico (Three that Mercado is directly involved with are shown here. A little hunting on Facebook will likely find you more, connected to people you know.) “But don’t stop there,” she says. “Track progress of the funds, hold people accountable for updates, get to know who is helping and who is being helped. It will delight and inspire while helping others feel a greater good.”

What attention Maria has received in the press will be eclipsed by the next news cycle, but rebuilding there will take months or years; help those in charge of relief efforts remember that the hurricane was just the beginning of this threat to the lives, health and safety of our fellow Americans from Puerto Rico.

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