A home in Loíza, Puerto Rico, was destroyed by the strong winds brought by Hurricane Maria. (Photo: FEMA)

The inability to communicate with family members in the midst of mind-boggling destruction evokes a feeling of utter helplessness.

“We feel 100 percent [not empowered],” Chattanooga resident Sylvia Cintron, who was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said. “We can’t pick up the phone, talk or text. We can’t send them money. We can’t send them a [supply] bag or box. We can only pray that all efforts here on the mainland are going to [help].”

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, a United States territory with a population of 3.4 million, Sept. 20. It was the strongest storm to hit the island in decades. It brought 155-mph winds and left at least 16 people dead. As of Sept. 30, 95 percent of people there were still without power.

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Widespread power outages mean fewer than half the island’s banks and ATMs are working. Cell service is spotty or nil. Some residents have driven down the highway hoping to get a signal so they can pull over and take advantage of the moment of connection, Cintron said.

Driving for a signal and getting a message from the boss may be the only way people know if they should go into work, she said. But with no public transportation and gas shortages, getting anywhere might not be possible.

Cintron’s sister is seven months pregnant, and her mother is elderly. She’s only been able to talk to her sister briefly. Her family is safe but has no power or water. Her brother-in-law waited five hours to get $20 of gas, partly so he could charge his phone in hopes of communicating with the mainland. 

Chattanoogan Idris Garcia isn’t sure if his grandfather has access to his blood pressure medicine. He’s watching his mother struggle with the reality that she can’t get in touch with her parents to see what they need and how they are.

His mother is living moment to moment not knowing whether something has gone wrong since she heard from them.

“Things can change in an instant,” Garcia said.

And if the island doesn’t get cleaned up soon, it creates conditions for further infliction.

Wired reported that standing water and high temperatures create situations that could breed waterborne and mosquito-borne diseases.

Local resident Xavier O. Cotto said he’s lucky to have made contact with his family members. His grandmother has a landline that worked for a while, and his family in San Juan has been able to get cell service here and there, so he knows they are safe, he said.  

But local resident Jocelyn Loza hasn’t been so fortunate:

At the moment, I have not heard from my family. My mother and uncle still live on the island. I can’t image what my people are facing. I have talked to local Puerto Ricans who had the opportunity to get in touch with their families. The devastation is [un]imaginable, help is [delayed], and the island is with no electrical power or phone services. Trying to get in touch with your loved ones is worrisome.

On Friday, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto pleaded to anyone listening for help.

“We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy,” she said about the United States’ response.

Cotto expressed frustration that supplies came to the San Juan port but stopped there because there were no trucks or diesel to get the rations out to the people.

He said via email:

There’s been an unfortunate delay on behalf of the White House to deploy personnel, to allocate funds, to recognize the need to waive the Jones Act that would allow for quicker, cheaper support to be sent to the island. These things are finally happening, but it took way longer than it should. It’s especially upsetting when you realize that this was happening while the president is tweeting about football.

Cintron is worried that any help that comes is already too late for some people.

And although that feeling of helplessness is heavy, local residents are determined to find ways to provide support.

How to help
At Sunday’s Chattanooga Market in First Tennessee Pavilion, Puerto Rico en Chattanooga and Puerto Rico Rises Chattanooga started a supply drive. Details can be found here or by reaching out to the local groups.  

Puerto Rico en Chattanooga, which launched in 2014 after a conversation about ways to unite the local Puerto Rican population, is working with organizations such as ConPRmetidos.

“They established a recovery fund online with a goal of $150,000,” Loza said. “As of now, they have surpassed that goal and have raised over $850,000.”

All donations to this fund will exclusively support the Puerto Rican people, and local leaders are still collecting monetary donations, she also said. 

Garcia encouraged people to give to reputable organizations and to think about things beyond food and water, which is likely what most people will donate.

Donors should think about what they’d need during a disaster or in daily life that might be taken for granted, he said. People may need baby formula. They may need batteries for flashlights. A list of needed supplies is available here.

Garcia said his mom has been repeating an important point: There is no room for fatigue in response to this.

“This process is going to be a long one,” he said. “Mom said, ‘We can’t get tired.’ This isn’t going to end in a month or two. We have to be patient and ready to help. We can’t get tired.”

“We are as American as apple pie.”
In addition to wanting to raise awareness and provide practical help for those living through this crisis, the four local residents with connections to Puerto Rico all had one message: Puerto Ricans are United States citizens.

“They are equally American citizens,” Garcia said. “I understand it’s kind of removed from the mainland, but it’s important to understand that there are people suffering and people who could die if nothing is done.”

(According to The New York Times, more than half of Americans don’t know that people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens.)

“I think it’s important for people to know that we are as American as apple pie,” Cintron said. “We are Puerto Rican, but being Puerto Rican means that we are a mix of flavors and cultures, including American culture and influence … Our flag is literally red, white and blue.”

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