Bringing Aid to ‘Puerto Rico’s Haiti’

As federal aid lags, Puerto Ricans are doing it for themselves


Under the motto “We give from what we have, not from what is left over,” a group of residents led by three teachers in San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been collecting food, water, and clothes to deliver to areas in the interior of the island, where — six weeks after the storm — it still feels as if Hurricane Maria hit yesterday.

After putting out a simple call on social media, the group received enough money and supplies from fellow Puerto Ricans to fill ten SUVs with supplies. Volunteers met last Sunday in the parking lot of a shopping center in the town of Dorado, forty minutes west of San Juan, to start the hour-plus drive into the mountains.

It was a remarkable effort by people who are themselves still struggling with power outages and shortages of food and water. “Helping is more gratifying when we give what we possess,” Glenda Rodríguez, a physical education teacher and one of the organizers of the event, told the volunteers who turned up to help. “Keep in mind that, in addition to supplies, we are going to deliver love and therapy. These people have been through a lot.”

Christian Valentín, also a physical education teacher and an organizer of the assistance effort, explained, “We chose this area because we were part of a similar initiative last week and we were told that much help was needed there. They said that part is Puerto Rico’s Haiti.”

Initiatives such as these have been replicated constantly across Puerto Rico, as many residents have put their personal situations aside to go and help those who are in greater need.

“We are teachers, we serve, we are educators, and we just couldn’t sit by waiting for others to take action,” said Rose Alma, another one of the coordinators, explaining why they chose to organize. “In the metropolitan area, we have the same difficulties and lack of power and water, but we are not facing the needs the countryside is enduring.”

The days are indeed complicated for people living in the metropolitan area. However, in the countryside town of Cacao, a trip to the grocery store to get scarce drinking water, for example, can take forty minutes of driving along roads that remain strewn with debris from collapses that left them blocked for days, or with some of their lanes reduced to rubble after landslides. As if this was not complicated enough, in small towns there is a limited number of bank branches open for people to withdraw cash, the main means of doing commerce on the island at the moment.

It was precisely water delivery that people in Cacao were most grateful for during the group’s rounds.

“Oh, look, there’s water! That’s great!” exclaimed Reinaldo Fred, 76. “A million thanks!” added his son Freddy, 38, who moved in with his father after completely losing the wood house where he lived.

Until Sunday, no aid mission had trekked down the narrow road leading to the Freds’ home.

“This is the first time we see someone around here,” said Reinaldo. “They have come to the neighborhood, but they go through the main street — they don’t get here. This is a blessing.”

In all, the group spent five hours in the mountains delivering aid to nearly a hundred families.

“This [the storm and its aftermath] has been very drastic, very critical, very sad,” said Alberto Pagán, father of two sons, 4 and 7, after receiving aid from the San Juan group. “The fact that people had this wonderful idea to share what they have is simply a blessing.”

While some have organized because their calling drives them to do so — or in response to the continued slow response of the authorities, both local and federal, including FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers — other volunteers joined because the devastation hit close to home. This was the case for personal trainer Rafael “Yogi” Rodríguez, who has a customer who lost her home to the hurricane.

“When we approached the area, we saw that everyone there needed assistance,” said Rodríguez. “When they saw us, they did not believe that we were here to help them because the government still hadn’t reached them.” The volunteers brought not only water, but mattresses for those who had lost theirs to flooding, and hot food and coffee. “When we arrived with the coffee, the ladies there went crazy,” said the personal trainer.

Of all the things he has witnessed, what impacted Rodríguez the most was seeing the children of the community go hungry. “It is rare to see that in Puerto Rico,” he said. “It really was a hard blow to see kids asking us for food and having seconds.”

Despite President Donald Trump’s comments before his visit to the island that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them,” the reality is that Puerto Ricans began to take action just hours after the storm passed. People quickly took to the streets to see how they could help. Many grabbed chainsaws and machetes and began clearing roads so that people could pass, and freeing people from their homes, where they had been trapped by fallen trees and branches.

Other efforts organized across the island aim to bring entertainment and offer some release from the stifling situation created by lacking electricity and drinking water for so long. Currently, the island is able to produce only 30 percent of its needed power, and about 20 percent of the population does not have running water. In addition, problems with telecommunications persist, and connecting to the internet or even making a simple phone call continues to be a challenge. The situation drains the mind and is beginning to cause hopelessness in the soul.

This is what José “Chewi” Candelario and María de Lourdes Méndez, owners of the San Juan running supplies store En La Meta, had in mind when they brought together nearly 400 athletes for a monthly practice run. “We decided that we would continue doing things the way we had done them until now because we know that this is a space that people cherish,” said Candelario. “In normal times, people are stressed out about work, about their family situations, but now everything is three times worse: We are seeing things we had never experienced before. People need a space to let out that stress.”

The volunteers, meanwhile, quickly ran through their ten SUVs of supplies. “Their reaction was big — we did not expect so many people,” said Rodríguez. “We went to collect more provisions and came back.”