Illustration by Ingrid Wu

Texas and Florida are nearly recovered from 2017’s hurricane season, but American citizens in the Caribbean still need our help.

It’s been over four months since three hurricanes barreled one after the other across the Caribbean.

But as Floridians shove hastily-bought canned beans deeper into their pantries, Puerto Rican residents of rural mountain towns stand ankle-deep in mud, hurling rocks into flooded rivers to form bridges for cars to pass through. With reconstruction stunted by unstable terrain and mudslides, the people in the mountains seem stuck in time.

Retired United States Air Force officer Roberto Cintron is from South Florida, is no stranger to stories of leftover destruction channeled to him by friends and family living across several municipalities of Puerto Rico, from San Juan to Mayaguez.

“Devastation in some of the islands is so extensive that some of them are completely uninhabitable and there are populations that have had to be moved off the islands,” Cintron said during a phone interview. “There are even areas where the water is still not drinkable.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz Soto made Puerto Rico’s cry for help clear during a September 2017 press conference:

“We are dying here.”

Yet the response from the States has fallen short as the Trump administration has shown reluctance to provide Puerto Rico the same rescue efforts it granted Texas and Florida.

In January, the administration denied the island loans from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The island will not receive federal community disaster aid until its “cash balance decreases to a certain level”, according to a Jan. 9 letter from FEMA to Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory authority. This could prove problematic for the portion of the island still without power and the people living in poverty that according to the U.S. Census Bureau is about 40 percent of the population.

In late January, FEMA declared its intention to cut off its distribution of emergency food and water in Puerto Rico and turn over control of the distribution to the Puerto Rican government. Immediately, lawmakers from both political parties urged the agency to reverse its decision. In a Feb. 1 statement, FEMA reiterated its belief that the island has enough supplies to support the people in need but will continue to provide support.

“Months after the storms hit, about 450,000 people in Puerto Rico are still without power.”

“Recovery has been slow,” said Nereyda Roman, an elementary school teacher from Isabela, Puerto Rico. “They’ve cleaned the streets, they’ve cleaned out all the fallen trees. But a lot of people still don’t have electricity.”

Months after the storms hit, about 450,000 people in Puerto Rico are still without power, according to the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The extent of the damage to the island’s already weak infrastructure is making it difficult to stabilize a power source.

Electricity is just one of many problems Puerto Rican citizens continue to face. Groceries can be hard to come by, as certain staples aren’t available in supermarkets, and progress on recovering the transportation network has been slow, Cintron said.

The damage sprawls unevenly across the island, so municipalities deal with a range of threats to their livelihood. In Utuado, a municipality near Rio Abajo, Hurricane Maria destroyed the only bridge that connected it to the rest of Puerto Rico, leaving the population with little means of communication. The people of Utuado were virtually isolated from relief for months, earning their municipality the name “el campamento de los olvidados”, or “camp of the forgotten,” Roman said.

Puerto Rico will soon contend with the start of its hurricane season in May. The means the window of opportunity to restore electricity is closing; people are concerned that if contractors are not able to provide a permanent fix, their patchwork repairs won’t withstand a Category 2 hurricane, Cintron said.

The question remains: How can we help?

The U.S. Agency for International Development website advises to hold off on donating material goods and instead provide relief through monetary donations.

“The one issue with monetary donations is that the people of Puerto Rico have to go to the supermarkets and purchase food and because there isn’t power restored to all the supermarkets, they don’t have food available,” said Mario Agosto, a student at the University of Florida with family from Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
If you know people living in Puerto Rico, the best way to help is to reach out to them ask directly what they need, Cintron said.

“When tragedy strikes and it affects every single person on the island, it’s not about how many times you fall, but about how many times you get back up.”

Within the University of Florida, the Puerto Rican American Student Union (UEPA) offers a strong support system for students coming into Gainesville from Puerto Rico. Last year, the organization sent donations to the island for eight weeks, said Angel Santiago, the student union president.

With a large part of residents displaced from their homes and most of these homes completely destroyed, a climate of frustration is inevitable. But the island’s spirit remains intact.

In the metropolitan area, where most have landed back on their feet, San Juan residents celebrated the annual Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian in late January. A four-day celebration of Puerto Rico’s cultural heritage, the Fiestas de la Calle featured an abundance of live music, artisanal stands and cultural events. The community came together, undeterred and full of energy, to uphold their cherished traditional manner of wishing the Christmas season goodbye.

“The resilience present in the Puerto Rican people is absolutely beautiful,” said Agosto. “When tragedy strikes and it affects every single person on the island, it’s not about how many times you fall, but about how many times you get back up. That’s something that the people there believe until the end of the day.” •


How can you help? 

Before making a donation, be sure to look for vetted relief agencies through websites like Charity Navigator, which rates nonprofit groups based on accountability and transparency. The following relief agencies are directing aid to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other Caribbean islands affected by Hurricane Maria. All received four stars, Charity Navigator’s highest rating:

DIRECT RELIEF | www.directrelief.org

A humanitarian aid organization offering cash support and medical material aid to the affected Caribbean islands.

GLOBAL GIVING | www.globalgiving.org

Their relief fund will provide assistance to affected populations in the Caribbean islands in the form of emergency supplies and then longer-term recovery efforts.

WORLD HOPE INTERNATIONAL | www.worldhope.org

A Christian relief and development organization that has partnered with churches in the Caribbean and distributed water filters, solar chargers, generators and medication among the affected islands.

HISPANIC FEDERATION | www.hispanicfederation.org

Its “Unidos” hurricane relief fund will support Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico with emergency relief.

COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS (CFVI) | http://www.cfvi.net/hurricane/index.php

CFVI is committed to receiving input from community members, fellow nonprofits, and national and local experts in order to ensure its hurricane funds are applied in a manner  “that enhances the wellbeing of both current and future generations.,” according to its website. 

ALL HANDS VOLUNTEERS | https://www.hands.org/projects/usvi-hurricane-response/ 

All Hands Volunteers is currently undertaking mucking-and-gutting, debris removal, chainsawing and sanitation efforts in St. Thomas and St. John.

 

Editor’s Note: Our list of organizations has been expanded to include organizations that are working on recovery efforts in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the rest of the Caribbean.