When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, its wind speed was one mile per hour shy of a Category 5 storm, the most powerful of hurricane categories. Wooden shacks were blown away by winds of 155 miles per hour and significantly higher gusts. Trees fell and blocked roads to remote villages. Heavy rain caused mud slides, and the precarious electrical system failed, blacking out power to the entire island. Freshwater food and other commodities were in short supply and internet connections became nonexistent.
Those inland with cell phones or email could not reach anyone on the mainland. Theoretically, if you had a hard wire phone, you might have been able to reach someone, although many of those lines were knocked out as well.
The disaster hit one of the poorest places connected with the United States. Its fragile economy was already on the verge of collapse, leaving no resources for storm recovery.
For almost three weeks, we heard no word from my sister, who lives near Coabey in the mountainous region of Puerto Rico. When she did eventually call, it was from the parking lot of a CVS drug store, miles down the mountain in the village.
After serving in the U.S. Army for years, my sister Kathleen and her husband know how to take care of themselves. Although services such as gas and the internet had not yet been restored, she was grateful that she had come through the storm with relatively little loss when so many people living nearby had lost everything.
“Our house was made of concrete and rebar,” she said. “Most of the other houses were made of wood and they were destroyed.”
Not completely unscathed
Trees her husband’s ancestors had planted a century ago were uprooted, including the family mango tree. A coconut tree had fallen onto the roof of the house.
Everything outside their house had vanished under the high winds and torrential downpour. This included the rear wall of her tool shed so that when she and her husband had to get out the driveway to the road they had to cut through the fallen trees with machetes. All their tools were gone.
“It took us two days to get out of our driveway,” she said.
With no power, no internet, no phone service, they had been cast back into another age. Puerto Rico suffered two hurricanes within a few weeks.
“The first one grazed us,” she said. “The second one hit us head on with 155 mile an hour winds and gusts over 200.”
Even making their way down the mountain to the village where FEMA had set up a trailer was an adventure. The roads were littered with fallen trees, mudslides, and a host of other obstacles that even four wheel-drive vehicles found challenging. But she and her husband were veterans, and their military training paid off.
At the FEMA office, my sister received $500 to cover food and other expenses.
“We were veterans, and they were helping veterans first,” she said.
Lines to the bank were long, and so were the lines to get food.
“Fortunately, we were properly stocked before the storm hit,” she said. “I was an Army baby. So was my husband. We spent a lot of time in the field.”
She said army training kicked in well before the island went dark. She had stocked up on food and water. She kept buying bottled water and sticking it into every cabinet she could find, puzzling family members.
“I knew we would need it sooner or later,” she said. “The only things we were really short of were meat and ice.”
Since they operated on propane tanks, they did not have to depend on the gas company. While they were in the dark, they could still cook meals, she said.
After the storm, deliveries to village stores were severely limited. Each store was allotted only 40 bags of ice. But she managed to procure enough to stick into a freezer to keep meat and other foods fresh for more than 10 days.
FEMA initially gave out a case of water to people as well as military field rations, called MREs. Eventually, they installed pipes into mountain filtered water at various points along the road, which allowed people to access fresh water that did not need to be boiled.
There were lines for a lot of basics such as gasoline. But even that proved not too much a problem for her, and she managed to charge her cell phone using the jeep cigarette lighter.
Back home in the States
Like many that suffered the storm, my sister eventually made her way back to the US to stay with my other sister in California. She needed the rest. But she will be going back just before Christmas. Fortunately, she has something to go back to. Most of those who went through the storm lost everything, and hundreds of thousands are relocating on the mainland, either to the Miami area or to Hudson County and New York.
“We’ve heard that there are camps set up in Florida,” Kathleen said.
Many like my sister are angry at the poor response from the federal government and blame President Donald Trump for not doing enough quickly enough to help people there.
“President Trump came down and threw rolls toilet paper and paper towels at us,” she said. “I took this to mean we wipe our asses and dry our tears. And he rated himself ten as a grade for his response.”
She was not alone in criticizing Trump. Many in the island felt betrayed by the lack of federal response which was neither timely nor effective in reaching those beyond the shore
A united local response
Meanwhile back home, people in New Jersey and especially heavily Hispanic Hudson County, disgusted with the lack of federal response, decided to organize to provide aid to the beleaguered island.
Even before the winds had subsided, organizers of the relief effort networked on a conference call with 33 New Jersey leaders, out of which New Jersey for Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief emerged.
Rather than reinvent the wheel the new organization decided to use those agencies that already had a footprint on the island nation.
Money raised through private donations as well as fund raisers in Jersey City and elsewhere was given to The Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico.
These three organizations were positioned to provide immediate relief services to the residents of the island. Their representatives were presented checks in a ceremony in Liberty State Park last week by the New Jersey for Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief organization.
Of the $80,000 raised, $20,000 went to the American Red Cross and $30,000 to the Salvation Army New Jersey Division and another $30,000 to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico.
A large portion of these funds were raised at an event held at the Loews Theater in Jersey City in early October, said Jersey City Councilman Daniel Rivera, who also oversaw a shipment of supplies sent through his efforts in Jersey City.
But most of the other money came from donations, from as little as $5 to a single donation of $30,000 from one individual through NJ4PR.org.
The Hudson County Freeholders voted to allocate $1,500 to the fund. Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro gave an individual donation of $2,000. Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, who chairs the state Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Committee, said people came together from various locations in order to help, and noted that the organizations picked for funding are already involved.
“We worked with the Red Cross during Superstorm Sandy,” she said. That experience also may be valuable to those in Puerto Rico, she added. “We have life lessons to share with those on the island.”
Freeholder Junior Maldondo said this is a combined effort from family and friends living in Jersey City and Hudson County to help people on the battered island.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.