Since Hurricane Maria struck, water issues have plagued Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
More than 130 days have passed since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, devastating the island and causing one of the greatest humanitarian and environmental crises of the last decades. Today, electricity still hasn’t been restored across the island and the water situation is even worse.
Steve Tamar, director at Blue Water Task Force Rincon water quality program and vice chair of the Surfrider Rincon Foundation is stationed in the northwestern point of the island where, in many areas, power still hasn’t been restored.
“There’s no power since the hurricane,” said Tamar. “Water was restored to this barrio three weeks ago, but it’s kind of intermittent, it comes and goes.”
According to the Associated Press, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, raw sewage poured into the streams and rivers of the island, contaminating the water. The presence of toxic waste in the water leaking from the 23 Superfund sites on the island also increased threats of bacterial diseases, like leptospirosis, which caused two deaths after the hurricane.
Because of this, chlorine is being used to clean the water, causing the islanders to deal with yet another problem. According to Scientific American, excessive chlorine in water may cause respiratory issues and increase the risk of bladder, rectal and breast cancers.
“They’re hyper chlorinating the entire system specifically to kill microorganisms and it’s changing the pH in the water,” said Tamar. “And we’re recommending people not to drink it or to boil it first and let it sit and outgas.”
Tamar and his team are testing the water for quality and installing water treatment units where necessary or, when it’s more efficient, distributing domestic home filters house by house.
The island’s battered infrastructure continues to be a problem and many believe it won’t be able to handle the increasing threat of climate change if no changes are made.
Specifically, Tamar believes that the electrical transmission lines should be buried and not exposed to wind damage.
“It’s having electricity above ground that’s a real liability to islands like this,” said Paul Strum, director of Ridge to Reefs organization. “Certainly Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was old and badly maintained, but when you have trees and power lines that are above ground it doesn’t matter how good that infrastructure is, it’s going to have severe damages from the storm.”
With the Trump Administration recently cutting funding for the EPA and increasing environmental policy rollbacks such as toxic waste protocols, many organizations on the ground feel that government agencies haven’t done enough to help.
“Both the federal agencies and the Puerto Rican agencies are doing very little,” said Tamar. “The government’s already saying ‘we’re gonna sell the electric system’ cause they can’t handle it.”
According to FEMA, Puerto Rico was one of their largest missions yet.
But, in the thick of it, organizations felt it was easier to act independently.
“We didn’t waste a lot of time with FEMA or EPA. There was too much heat on the ground to bother with coordination with large bureaucracies,” said Sturm. “It wasn’t a productive use of our time.”
Both the reconstruction and the resiliency building are happening as a bottom-up process, where organizations work to manage relief projects on their own.
“My personal thing has been going up to these remote barrios and distributing little solar powered lights,” said Tamar. “Every time I go up there I empty out the vehicle, giving hundreds away at a time.”
According to Ridge to Reefs the island is starting to develop pockets of areas using renewable energy. Even though they’re still extraordinarily vulnerable, having renewable energy sources means that power is not attached to the grid, avoiding failure if anything were to happen, and functioning as a backup system in case of emergency.
“Water pumping stations, sewage treatment facilities, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, things like that should really be off the grid and not dependent on the power system,” said Sturm.
With the bureaucracy gridlock, lack of transparency in managing funds and a generally dysfunctional system, many still think it will take time before things are back to normal.
“People are still working four months later, they’re rebuilding, still replanting their farms,” said Sturm. “And in many instances they’re trying to do it with limited water and energy. They’re expected to be ongoing for another 6 to 12 months.”
Others, however, are less optimistic about timing but are counting on the community’s willingness to stick together and help each other.
“We’re not being overly hopeful of recovery being completed anytime soon,” said Tamar. “Things are really, really messed up here, but the community is coming together to solve its own problems.”
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.”
Daniela Valdes Bennett and Ana Garcia, visiting students through the NYU Hurricane Maria Assistance Program, in Bobst Library at NYU. Photo by Claire Tighe
When Puerto Rican college students Ana Garcia and Daniela Valdes Bennett applied to transfer to NYU for their spring semester after surviving two hurricanes, they kept it a secret from each other. The friends broke the news through emojis — an airplane, followed by another airplane and an American flag.
“I texted her saying, ‘Hey, I have news,’” said Bennett. “Ana said, ‘I have news too.’ And we freaked out.”
Garcia and Bennett are two of the 57 students admitted to NYU for the Spring 2018 semester through the Hurricane Maria Assistance Program. Through the program, NYU covers full tuition, a meal plan, housing and health insurance for students whose educations were interrupted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria last fall.
“There were over 400 applications and several hundred more that were not completed,” said Josh Taylor, Associate Vice Chancellor of Global Programs at NYU. “We prioritized students with challenging living situations, no internet and who attended campuses with no electricity.”
Other major universities, including Tulane, Cornell and Brown, are offering similar programs this spring.
Bennett and Garcia decided to transfer after barely managing one semester on the recovering island. Throughout the fall semester, closed classrooms, destroyed equipment and loss of power made studying nearly impossible.
Garcia’s school was closed for weeks due to the storms.
“Water came through the roof and ruined all the computers, everything,” Garcia said. “When the school opened again, we were taking classes in different places. It was a mess. When classes resumed, the power wasn’t guaranteed.”
Today, 131 days after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans on the island continue to struggle with the lack of reliable power. According to status.pr, 69% of the island has electricity, leaving 450,000 people currently without power. Garcia’s family completely lost power for four months. For Bennett’s, it was three and a half months, but they still have intermittent outages.
“Just this morning my family lost power again,” said Bennett. “It’s coming and going. Talking to them on the phone makes me kind of sad to know that they are still there. My twin brother is still studying in Puerto Rico and he keeps calling me saying, “‘I’m so jealous of you.’ I know it’s hard for them.”
During the fall semester, both students did homework using flashlights and candles. To do research, they drained their cell phone batteries and used what little data they had. When it was time to recharge, they took their laptops and phones to local cafes and waited along with dozens of other people who shared surge protectors and outlets.
“There were so many lines,” said Garcia. “For everything.”
At the cafes, the young women submitted their applications to NYU, which felt like a much-needed relief from the stress in the aftermath of the storms.
“The situation is just so overwhelming,” said Garcia. “You can’t think of anything but getting your power back and being able to shower with hot water.”
For Garcia, the chance to attend NYU for the spring seemed like a second chance to buckle down after a semester lost to the hurricanes.
“I found out that I had gotten into the program while I was at the bakery charging my phone and my laptop,” said Garcia. “And then I started crying and the people at the bakery were like, ‘Are you okay?’ And I was like, ‘Yea, I’m just really excited. This is good news.”
On campus at NYU, the transfer students feel embraced by their peers, despite the differences in their experiences.
“As soon as I told my roommates I was from Puerto Rico, they asked me about the hurricane,” said Bennett. “They sat around the table and I told them all of my stories and they were like, ‘Oh my god, wow.’
But the visiting students feel like their peers aren’t talking about Puerto Rico as much as they should be.
“I do feel like a lot of people have forgotten about it,” said Bennett. “People think it’s over and there has been so much progress, so I don’t want to complain. But it’s not over yet.”
Today’s Donation drive for Mexico and Puerto Rico on Southern Blvd & Aldus St in the Bronx was filled with supporters. Photo Credit: Stella Levantesi
The line of vehicles was long, but patient. Cars and vans were overflowing with food and basic necessities. People worked as a human chain, shouting enthusiastically at each other to pass on boxes of supplies towards the huge container trucks parked on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx.
Today’s donation drive hosted by the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization was about the community coming together to aide victims of hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the earthquake in Mexico.
And the Bronx Latino community is large. The Bronx is a borough of more than 1.4 million people of which about 56 percent are of Hispanic descent which makes up more than a third of New York’s Hispanic community. Puerto Ricans are the majority of Bronx Latinos.
“We’re having a lot more (supplies) than we’ve expected and we possibly will need more trucks,” said Liza Galletti, a local activist.
The island of Puerto Rico, nearly wiped out by Hurricane Maria, is suffering from one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the last decades. Power grids are down, roads are blocked, bridges have collapsed and there’s a shortage of food and water.
“That’s why we keep telling people ‘please donate, please donate.’ This can’t be a one time thing,” Galletti said.
Southern Boulevard was swarmed with volunteers and community members who flooded the street to show their support. Music blasted from the speakers, whistles blew and speakers rallied the crowd in Spanish.
“We’re done with another container. All six containers are full,” yelled volunteer and Queens resident Darlene Free, flashing a smile.
They were not even halfway through the relief operations.
“And we have six more coming,” she yelled, trying to raise her voice over the applauding crowd.
For volunteers and donors, it was all about getting help to the victims as they struggle and work together to stay alive.
“In my family if one person can cook then all the other members go to that home so they get at least a meal once a day,” said Jadeling Chavez, an ESL middle school teacher in the Bronx. “We have a motel down in Santa Isabela and my father provides gas and a place where people can stay. At least at night people have light because the area is not safe and it’s dangerous.”
In hospitals, generators have broken down and medications are running low.
“I have an aunt who is in dehydration,” said Erica Morales, 33, of the Bronx. “She hasn’t had water in days. But she hasn’t been able to get to the hospital. Other people are stuck in their houses because of flooding. The water’s contaminated and people are getting sick.”
For Puerto Ricans on the mainland, communicating with their families is one of the biggest issues. Most people have to leave their towns to get an antenna signal that allows them to send even a short, quick message.
“The first days I wasn’t able to talk to my parents for a week,” said Sofia Tollinche, 20, a student at Manhattan College and a Puerto Rico native. “Now they call me if they have a signal, but I can never get through to them.”
Many of the supporters were not happy with the response of the US government.
“The government hasn’t stepped up the way they should,” said Rebecca Ramos, 43, a native of Puerto Rico. “I’m beyond angry, our president’s priority is going golfing this weekend while people are literally dying.”
Some community members pointed out that many Americans don’t realize that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo flew to Puerto Rico immediately after Hurricane Maria hit, emphasizing the need for a collective and urgent effort to face Puerto Rico’s paralysis.
The Mexico earthquake seemed to take a back seat to the dire issues of the island.
“I was born in Mexico, so what happened there for me is a great deal,” said Christian Valero, of the Bronx and a graphic designer. “But I’m here to express solidarity with anyone who’s affected. It’s not just Puerto Rico or Mexico, it’s everywhere and it’s good to see people come together to help.”
Volunteers are also headed to the island to help.
“We are seeing the very best of humanity here. I’m proud,” said Ruben Diaz Jr., president of the Bronx Borough. “We’ve felt this pain for the last nine days, but we’re channeling that in a positive way. This response is just amazing.”
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.”
On June 29th, 2015, Alejandro Garcia, the governor of Puerto Rico, announced that Puerto Rico could not pay their $73 billion dollar debt.
The failure to pay this debt has negatively impacted the citizen’s living on the island, and those living in the states that may have family members or relatives living there. Jobs and food are scarce, and schools and hospitals are being shut down due to the lack of finances to sustain these institutions. As a result, many Puerto Ricans are fleeing the island, and migrating to America’s major cities like Florida and New York, to escape the hardships of the economic crisis.
Though the migration to America from Puerto Rico adds more complications to the economic crisis, the biggest complication is the migration of Puerto Rico’s young population. Students who see no hope in continuing their education in Puerto Rico, are leaving their original universities and colleges, and transferring to study in American institutions instead. Many believe that their chances of obtaining a quality job with their degree are much greater in America.
The Puerto Ricans living in America, are not only raising awareness to the conditions that many Puerto Ricans on the island are being subjected to, but also raising awareness to the American government’s involvement in the crisis as well. Groups like A Call To Action Puerto Rico and the New York Community for Change (NYCC), have rallied and protested on Wall Street. These groups also plan community meetings to inform Puerto Ricans of what is going on in Puerto Rico, and to find ways to evoke change in the economic crisis.