The Ortiz family of Carolina Puerto Rico, now make their home in Jersey City, New Jersey.
A week after Angel Ortiz moved from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, Hurricane Maria hit the island, with his wife and daughter still living in their northern hometown of Carolina.
“When Hurricane Maria passed through, everything changed,” Ortiz said. “I spent three days without knowing how they were.”
Ortiz’s wife and young daughter didn’t meet him in Philadelphia until Nov. 9. They were put in emergency housing provided by FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — and started working through welfare programs.
But on Jan. 13, they got a call from the agency.
“(FEMA) said no more, and that we needed to move,” Ortiz said. “They said our house was determined to be livable in Puerto Rico, so we couldn’t stay in FEMA housing anymore.”
Although the Ortiz’s house was deemed livable by the federal agency, Ortiz said widespread looting, a lack of reliable electricity and the weakened healthcare system have kept them in the states.
“Some hospitals are still running on generators,” he said. “My daughter got the pneumonia down there and they checked on her just once a day to control the asthma.”
Since getting removed from FEMA housing, the family moved to Jersey City, where they’re staying with Ortiz’s grandmother.
And they are just one of more than 40 Puerto Rican transplants that landed in Hudson County, New Jersey as a direct result of Hurricane Maria, according to the Jersey City Board of Education.
With a wave of Puerto Rican families moving to the area, community groups like Project PIEDRA (Professionals in Education Delivering Relief Assistance) are helping them in the transition to life in the states.
The organization connects Puerto Rican families like Angel’s to each other, along with other community resources.
Project PIEDRA is the brainchild of Francisco Santiago, a teacher in Jersey City’s public school system.
“When the hurricane hit the island, I looked at my wife and said, ‘babe, we got to do something. Let’s sell the house and move down there,” Santiago said.
But the couple settled on fundraising first, and they’ve been helping displaced families transition to new lives in Jersey in the meantime.
With an education-focused model, Project PIEDRA is also helping the educational system on the island.
Santiago said the group is engaged in talks with the Puerto Rican Department of Education about what schools need their help the most.
“We’re really focused on getting boots on the ground,” Santiago said. “Teachers also got his by this tragedy; they have homes they need to return to so we want to be a respite for them, whether it’s for a day or a week.”
The organization involves teachers, administrators, counselors and social workers, and the group plans to help out schools in every aspect, said William Diaz, Vice Principle at Fort Lee High School in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
“There has been a disruption in the educational process on the island, so the goal is to go there and support in any way possible,” Diaz said.
Diaz said most of his own family also remains on the island.
“When they suffer through what they’re going through, it has a big impact on me,” he said. “I’m not an electrician or a carpenter, but I can help through education.”
The group is currently in talks with corporate vendors to secure ongoing funding. Santiago said the long-term goal for the organization is to be a volunteer relief program for any area needing educational assistance — not just Puerto Rico.
“If something happens next year in, let’s say, Haiti, we want to be there too,” Santiago said. “Wherever we’re needed, that’s where we want to be.”
And as for Ortiz, he said his family has no plans to return to the island.
“I don’t care if I’m here, or back in Philadelphia or in any part of the United States,” Ortiz said. “I just want to work hard and have a better place in life for me and my family.”
Protesters gather near the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building to call for more aid to be sent to storm-stricken Puerto Rico. Photo by Amy Zahn
As Puerto Rico continues to feel the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, New Yorkers with ties to the island are experiencing a mounting sense of desperation, not knowing how to help, and in many cases, unable to contact their loved ones at all.
“It’s so desperate. We are all anxious,” said Puerto-Rican born New York resident Juan Recondo at a demonstration to rally support for the island yesterday. “My wife is crying all the time and I completely understand — she hasn’t spoken to her brother for more than a week.”
Recondo, like many of his fellow demonstrators, feels paralyzed in the wake of the storm’s destruction. At least 16 people have died, and millions are without power, clean water and gas, according to a CNN report.
“There’s no way we can help,” Recondo said. “Our hands are tied. This is the only way, trying to get involved in this type of movement.”
Recondo, along with over a hundred other protesters, gathered in Lower Manhattan to call for more aid to be sent to Puerto Rico and to condemn what they see as a slow response to the disaster by the U.S. government.
“I haven’t heard from my family at all, my whole family,” said protester Anthony Zayas, wrapped in a Puerto Rican flag. Aside from his mother, who lives in New Jersey, Zayas’ entire family is in Puerto Rico.
The state of New York is home to over a million people who identify as Puerto Rican, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the largest number in any state. There are over 5 million Puerto Ricans on the mainland U.S. in total, making them one of the largest Latino groups in the country, second only to Mexicans.
“People are praising Trump, but you know what? He did it too late. It should have been done immediately,” Zayas said, referring to Donald Trump’s temporary waiver of the Jones Act last week, eight days after the storm hit. “We’re American citizens, too.”
The Jones Act, passed in 1920, requires all ships transporting goods between U.S. ports to be built by Americans, and primarily manned by them. Trump lifted it for 10 days to facilitate shipments to the storm-ravaged island.
But despite the difficulties of assisting 3.4 million people — the population of Puerto Rico — there are ways to tailor relief efforts to be as helpful as possible, or at least avoid making things worse unintentionally.
According to Tony Morain, communications director for Direct Relief, a nonprofit that provides medications to hospitals and other health centers in disaster areas, it’s important for people to be mindful about the kinds of supplies they send.
In natural disasters, he said, it’s common for a shortage of truck drivers to combine with an influx of supplies trying to reach an area, creating a bottleneck in aid transport. After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Morain explained that well-meaning people sent nonessential items like stuffed animals and toys, which can clog up ports and slow the distribution of life-saving supplies.
Morain also advised against sending winter clothes, since Puerto Rico has been experiencing high temperatures. Water, food, gas and medicine are the essentials, he said.
As far as longer term help goes, Morain thinks awareness is Puerto Rico’s best bet at recovery.
“Keep this in the news,” he said. “It’s always the case that first people talk about the wind speed of the storm, and then they show palm trees swaying, and then things go dark for a bit because there’s no communication, and then we start hearing stories about how devastating the first response search and rescue is … and then it becomes communities that have been forgotten.”
Puerto Rican Americans like protester Robert Perez, whose aunt and sister are stuck on the island, are unlikely to forget anytime soon, and he hopes the government won’t either.
“After the pressure’s put on the government, maybe Mr. Trump will do something,” he said.
Protestors marching for Puerto Rico outside of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building yesterday. Photo by Monay Robinson
Protesters gathered outside the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building yesterday to express their anger over the U.S. government’s slow response in aiding Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria.
Red, white and blue Puerto Rican flags were waved along with signs that read “No American should be hungry” and “Rise up Puerto Rico.” The protesters marched in a circle and chanted, “Eight days and still we wait,” “Abolish the debt” and “Abolish the Jones Act.”
The Jones Act requires items from the U.S. to be shipped on American-owned and operated ships. According to CNN Money, this act has caused it to be “twice as expensive to ship things” from the U.S. to Puerto Rico. It was temporarily suspended yesterday, eight days after the hurricane destroyed the island, which is a US commonwealth and whose residents are American citizens.
Hurricane Maria first hit Puerto Rico the morning of Sept. 20th with powerful winds reaching up to 140 mph. Residents were left without power, water, food and shelter.
Ambar Martinez, 33, of Brooklyn, attended the rally with her mother. They have family living on the southwest part of the island and waited six days to hear from them. She found out her grandmother lost the roof to her house and everything inside, including sofas, mattresses and beds, was destroyed.
“I think he (Donald Trump) is not giving it any importance,” Martinez said. “It is not important to him and he would rather spend his time on the internet bashing people over other topics.”
Janette Messina of Brooklyn attended the rally with her daughter. She wore a white hat with a black band that read “Puerto Rico.”
“We are here today to show the administration that they cannot forget about our people in Puerto Rico,” she said. “They are taking their time. They are treating us like second world citizens and we are U.S. citizens.”
Messina’s parents are from Puerto Rico and she currently has family there. She was able to contact some of her family through a texting app.
“One of them texted me today and we were ecstatic,” she said. “ I assured her that we are helping. Don’t think that you are alone. You may not hear us, but please feel us.”
Messina said even though her family is doing badly, they are still alive. She has yet to be able to reach all of her family..
“We cry every day,” Messina said. “We try them every day. In my heart and in my soul, I believe they are alive. But my heart cannot tell me if their house is still there.”
Erica Hernandez, 35 of East Harlem, is trying to spread awareness of the living tragedy in Puerto Rico.
“Puerto Rico is my motherland,” Hernandez said. “It’s where my parents were born. It’s where I’m from and the island where I got married. It means the world to me.”
She has donated supplies and does not know what else to do to help.
“Right now we feel very helpless,” she said through tears. “I don’t know what else I can do. I came here to use my voice because that’s the only thing I know to do right now.”
A group of NYC council members knelt on the steps of City Hall yesterday. The action was a show of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who are protesting police brutality and racial injustice in America. Photo by Farnoush Amiri
Donning a black “IAmWithKap” t-shirt under a striped fitted blazer while holding up a red San Francisco 49ers jersey with Colin Kaepernick’s name and number inscribed on the back, Councilman Jumaane D. Williams (D-Brooklyn) led a group of council members in a “Kneel In” on the steps of City Hall yesterday morning, just days after President Trump called out demonstrations in the NFL.
The group of about 15 city officials joined together to display unity against the president’s tweets, which called the action of kneeling during the presentation of the National Anthem a “disrespect of our country,” and suggested that the NFL owners should get any “son of a bitch,” who doesn’t stand off the field.
“This here today was a protest,” council member Inez Barron (D-Brooklyn) said. “It was perhaps silent but it speaks volume in the action we are taking.”
This form of protest began back in 2016, when Kaepernick chose to kneel during the National Anthem in protest of the recent rise of police brutality against African-Americans in the US. The now free agent became the league’s unofficial symbol for the cause for police reform and civil rights for minorities.
“Protesting is probably the most American thing that one can do,” Williams said. “It is in fact the only thing that has ever propelled this country to move forward. Everything we have enjoyed from this country has come from protesting.”
The city officials demonstrating the right to protest also brought light to the lack of attention the president is directing toward Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. They said his focus on NFL players’ right to protest is a distraction from more pressing concerns. One council member even alluded to racism being the reason for the president’s hesitation to devote more attention to the Caribbean island.
“The struggle for racial justice, which we are honoring by taking a knee today, is not narrowing about policing because obviously we have systematic racism in our housing, segregation in schooling and now even in our hurricane relief response,” Councilman Brett Lander (D-Brooklyn) said.
Lander, along with Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Queens,) were just a few of the leaders who showed support for their minority colleagues whose cause they said they are able to empathize with.
“I stand as an ally. Obviously I am not a person of color, but I feel that white people, myself included, need to stand up for this cause and need to remember how it all started, which is an action against police brutality and the experience that people of color experience, oftentimes at the hands of police,” Dromm said to the crowd outside City Hall.
Andy King (D-Bronx,) also believes that the president and others who are not directly affected have an obligation to the ones who are.
“I will ask Donald Trump, live a day in a black man’s shoes, live a day in a Hispanic’s shoes, you’ll have different perspective of the world because you were born with a spoon in your mouth,” King said.
For African American councilmembers, this cause is a personal one, but they know that not unlike the dozens of other civil rights marches and causes that have occurred in this country, this one will also begin and end with the act of nonviolent protest.
“When this started months ago, many of us made it clear that this was not about the flag, this is not about patriotism,” Williams said. “This is about a system of supremacy, a system of oppressive policy that has been around a long time, and many people have tried to use patriotism to stop people from protesting and we’ve said that that will not last.”
Staff and children hold hands during a sports program class. Photo by Michael Furino.
Every Saturday for the past four months, Michael Sforza, 11, spends his morning at Be the Best Sport, track and field lessons in Port Washington, Long Island. Running, leaping and landing on two feet doesn’t seem difficult for most, but for Sforza, spending 45 minutes at the Port Washington Tennis Academy, running back and forth to constantly perfect his form is an accomplishment his father couldn’t be more proud of.
Sforza enjoys sports, video games, the internet and exercising, but what differentiates him from most children his age is that he has autism. Sforza was diagnosed when he was 20 months old. His father, Nick Sforza said that although his son likes to be at home on the computer, this program, allows Sforza to get out of the house and spend time doing what he loves to do, run.
About six years ago, Nick Sforza heard about the sports organization for special needs children in Nassau County, which offers an array of programs ranging from soccer, basketball, track and field and others.
Edgar Sanchez, the Sports Program Director, said that although the organization is sports oriented, children also learn how to improve their listening skills and social functioning.
“One of the kids that we had in the previous class, he would walk around flailing his arms, falling on the ground, said Sanchez. “Any bit of sensory stimulation that was too much for him, he couldn’t handle it, and now, he comes in and he knows what’s expected out of him. He’s able to control his emotions so much more.”
Since 2009 Be the Best Sport has been providing Nassau County with sport programs for special needs adults and children. The organization aims to strengthen their motor, cognitive, and social skills.
The CDC reported that in 2016 nearly one in 68 children in the U.S. have autism.
Ameera Ullah, 14, who has microcephaly, a condition where the brain develops abnormally.also participates in the program. Her father, Sayeed Ullah, said that there are three components that all humans need to benefit your life.
“Sports to give strength, music for amusement and education for tools of success,” he said. “These three elements are very important in human life.”
When Ameera was one and a half years old, her father noticed something was wrong when she was only crawling. A neurologist determined that Ameera had microcephaly, now, at 14, Ameera’s brain functions like a 3 year old.
Whether or not the town or county provides sports programs for special needs children, Sayeed Ullah believes that doesn’t give an excuse for parents to overlook their children’s needs.
“Some towns don’t have it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the parents should sit on the couch. Physical fitness is very important for making your mind feel fresh and healthy. If the community doesn’t provide it, you as a parent need to move forward, look forward.”
Nick Sforza said he is grateful that his son has sports in his life.
“I think the hardest thing for a parent with a child on the spectrum is there aren’t enough things to do for them,” said Nick Sforza as he smiled while watching his son run his last lap around the track. “To have the ability to do this with him, it means more than anything.”