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Hurricane Irma’s wrath was as severe as its path through the Caribbean and South Florida was unpredictable. As the Category 5 hurricane approached, Puerto Ricans worried they would be left without power for months. But though Irma retained its strength for several days, with winds gusting up to 180 miles per hour, it mostly skirted north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, instead decimating Barbuda and St. Martin before pummeling Cuba en route to Florida.
The storm still hammered Puerto Rico, killing three individuals, cutting off power for one million residents, and depriving fifty thousand of water. Many wooden houses collapsed from severe winds and fallen tree limbs. And grocery stores were barren for several days in the storm’s aftermath.
“The stores were ransacked like the Fourth of July — shelves with tuna fish, water, soft drinks, ice, and any canned food was wiped out,” says David Ortiz, director of El Puente Puerto Rico, who is based in San Juan.
Drinking water has since been restored to much of the island, and stores are reopening with new shipments of food. But electricity and internet access have been slow to return, residents said.
“Many people still on the island are without electricity, and antennas aren’t working, so communication is a problem,” says Ortiz. “When I go home, I have no access to my cellphone, but in my office near old San Juan I have everything.”
Ortiz’s group welcomes any charitable contributions for Puerto Rico. El Puente is sending donations to religious organizations that work with the commonwealth’s most vulnerable communities. Much of the work and supplies needed, he says, will go toward repairing poorly constructed homes.
“Even strong wooden houses folded up,” Ortiz says. “I think those folks will end up rebuilding with concrete where there was wood, and there are a lot of groups hoping to do this.”
East Harlem’s Community Organizations Active in Disasters is collecting nonperishable food, clothing, towels and blankets, personal hygiene items, and first aid supplies at two drop-off sites at Casabe Senior Houses (150 East 121st Street) in Manhattan and El Maestro Cultural Center (1300 Southern Boulevard) in the Bronx. Batteries are especially needed.
While Haiti was largely spared the worst of the storm, CapraCare, a Manhattan-based nonprofit assisting with health programs there, is packaging emergency medical kits and food for rural regions in the northern part of the island.
“Right now we’re doing a lot of health education and treatment for infectious diseases and water-borne illnesses,” said CapraCare founder Jean Pierre-Louis, whose organization had only recently finished its recovery work following Hurricane Matthew. “There was heavy rain and light flooding in the particular areas that we assist.”
While Haiti was fortunate to have been missed by Hurricane Irma, Cuba bore the brunt of its destruction. At least ten people were killed in the storm and about two-thirds of the island remained without power, while 132 schools were damaged, according to Cuban state media. State media also noted that 71,000 chickens died in the storm, and more than 12,000 acres of fruit and vegetable farms were destroyed.
“Cuba is total disaster area right now,” says Liú Santiesteban, who runs the New Jersey–based nonprofit Despierta Cuba. “There is no food. There is no water, electricity, or gas or supplies almost in the whole island.”
Santiesteban and other advocates are trying to collect food and other items through nongovernmental channels such as the Catholic Church and Caritas, a grassroots anti-poverty nonprofit.
“Even if the government here opens the door to give whatever we want to give the thing is Cuba doesn’t receive it,” says Santiesteban. “Sometimes the [Cuban] government gives aid to tourists or prioritizes other people, and usually they sell everything in stores. I remember as a child seeing a whole chicken in stores with a sticker that said it was donated from the Canadian people to Cuban people.”
Even though President Trump has walked back the more permissive U.S.-Cuba tourism regulations announced under Obama, Americans can still travel to Cuba on humanitarian missions — which Santiesteban says could significantly help the country.
“If people want to organize themselves in groups and bring medicine and food supplies that would be great,” she says. “We really need all the help we can get. The situation is disastrous.”
Additional aid for the Caribbean may be coming from Washington in the future. Manhattan Congressman Adriano Espaillat has co-sponsored a tax credit benefit for Puerto Rican and U.S. Virgin Island residents affected by Hurricane Irma, called for foreign aid to Caribbean nations in need of relief, and proposed that the U.S. grant temporary protective status to individuals from small Caribbean nations in the storm’s wake.
“I would hope we can send humanitarian aid to any nation that finds itself in peril, or finds itself in a great crisis,” said Espaillat. “I don’t see how my colleagues would object to bringing emergency help to aid the Cuban people, many of whom have seen devastation.”
Espaillat and other members also want Congress to revisit the Jones Act, which prohibits Americans — including Puerto Ricans — from buying goods from foreign ships traveling from other American ports. President Trump granted a temporary waiver for the commonwealth during the hurricane.
“I think we should take it up again,” says Espaillat. “There are provisions of the Jones Act that are a detriment to the ability of Puerto Rico to move forward, and it’s very much on the agenda of those of us who advocate for the people of Puerto Rico.”
On Monday, September 18, as Hurricane Maria threatened landfall in Puerto Rico by Wednesday, Ortiz reported that islanders had ransacked store shelves over the weekend: “There’s a lack of just about everything, canned foods, ice, water. Stores didn’t get a chance to stock up fully because a lot of ships haven’t come in yet. The little propane stoves, you can’t find them anywhere. And gas stations are quickly running out of gas.”
Maria’s biblical name doesn’t help calm fears, says Ortiz: “There aren’t enough cops to cover the intersections. And a lot of stop lights aren’t working because of Irma. This is just a bad recipe.”