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Shortages plague Puerto Rico after Maria

Locals mobilize to send supplies while U.S. response seen lagging

By Karen Morales
Shortages plague Puerto Rico after Maria
Staff of La Fabrica Central restaurant and volunteers loaded three trucks with water, non-perishable food and other needed supplies for victims of hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Nearly a week after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico as a category 4 storm with winds of 155 miles per hour, many Boston area Puerto Ricans are still struggling to make contact with family members on the island and send to needed food and supplies.

To get in contact with the Puerto Rican government:

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The entire island has been without power, making relief efforts difficult to coordinate, and government response to the growing humanitarian crisis so far has been limited.

In the capital city of San Juan, food and water are in short supply. At the San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín Airport, U.S. mainland residents have waited for as long as three days for flights out without food or water. Most terminals lack electricity. As is the case across the island, ATMs are down.

Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, CEO of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, was able to get in touch with some of her family members in Puerto Rico last Thursday, but didn’t hear from others until Monday. Landlines are down and cell phone reception is spotty. “Communications are really bad. Sometimes the call drops or doesn’t get through,” she said.

Calderon-Rosado said she’s been using all forms of communication including WhatsApp and Facebook. “Whatever means you can, to get communication through,” she said. One of her cousins was able to get in contact while driving by the University of Puerto Rico San Juan campus, where she received a moment of cell phone reception.

Some members of the Puerto Rican community in Boston have been able to hear news of relatives through word of mouth. “There’s someone who knows someone, who knows someone,” said Calderon-Rosado.

Two days after the hurricane hit, Jaime Rodriguez, a local community activist, was unsuccessful in contacting his family members in the region of Isabela. “I’ve been calling 50 times a day, but there is no connection,” he said.

But getting through to family members doesn’t always offer solace. When Marta Rivera, a consultant working in Boston, reached her brother, David Ortiz, he reported that he, his wife and five-year-old daughter survived the hurricane. But he told Rivera they were running out of food and water.

“He has shared everything with the neighbors,” she said. “He’s running out of everything.”

Ortiz, who grew up in Roxbury, had to drive along a highway to find a spot with cell phone reception, using his car to charge his phone. But with gasoline in short supply, it’s unclear when he’ll be able to call again.

“He’s in the capital,” Rivera said. “Can you imagine what people in the small towns are going through?”

Scarce resources

While limited supplies of food and water are getting into the island, delivered by members of the National Guard, news media are broadcasting images of the destruction: a breached dam that forced the evacuation of thousands, homes flattened by the hurricane’s ferocious winds, washed out roads, flooded neighborhoods in San Juan where petrol chemicals backed up sewage and debris from damaged buildings have turned the water black.

“It’s really wearing on people,” Rivera said of the crisis. “People are trying to stay optimistic, but it’s been over a week and people aren’t getting the help they need.”

Various response efforts have sprung up in Boston from grassroots groups, government agencies and non-profits. IBA planned to hold a meeting to coordinate local efforts, donations and supplies on Sept. 26, from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. at 85 West Newton Street in the South End.

“The meeting will be a way to channel efforts to support Puerto Rico,” said Calderon-Rosado. “I’m hoping to hear any good ideas people may have and that they will come with the spirit of collaboration.”

In Cambridge Sunday, the owners of La Fábrica Central restaurant organized a relief drive, sending three truckloads of bottled water, food, diapers, baby formula, toiletries and other needed items to Lawrence, where they were to be shipped to the island.

“It was a great expression of solidarity with Puerto Rico,” said La Fábrica co-owner Dennis Benzan, whose mother is from the town of Coamo. “We had graduate students from Harvard and MIT who are from Puerto Rico helping out, people who work in biotech, a lot of Cambridge residents. It was very moving.”

The U.S. Postal Service is not currently operating locally in Puerto Rico, so for now, mass shipments like the one organized by the city of Lawrence may be the best way to get aid to the island.

Yawu Miller contributed to this story

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