Riverhead resident Jessica Ruiz said it was one of the most heart-wrenching moments of her life.
As she watched the day-after pictures of Hurricane Maria—which had already razed the US Virgin Islands— and the total destruction of her native Puerto Rico, she frantically dialed her grandmother’s number, but her many phone calls and texts went unanswered. She feared for her grandparents and siblings that were somewhere in the devastated island, unreachable, maybe lost, in a maelstrom of uncertainty and chaos.
“It was horrific. I was beyond worried, desperate, I cried and called and texted and there was no way of reaching them,” she said.
The days passed, but undeterred, she kept trying. She rallied other Puerto Ricans through social media, inquiring about her family and clinging to the news reports that became available, watching a hard situation turn to a dangerous one as the resources dwindled on the island and the full picture became clearer. Puerto Rico had been destroyed, and it would take a long time to go back to what it was before.
Finally, nearly two weeks later, one of her texts reached her uncle’s phone and she was able to briefly communicate with her grandparents.
“The relief was immense, this time I cried happy tears,” she said.
But the reality was that her grandparents, Jose Carrasquillo and Gladys Cruz, like most of the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans in the island, had ran almost out of water, had no power, no way of communicating, barely enough to eat and their diabetes and hypertension medication bottles were nearly empty.
“We knew Jessica was desperate, but once we talked to her we didn’t want to tell her we were in bad shape, but we were,” Cruz said.
Thanks to the help of airport personnel and because of their age—they are both in their seventies— and health, Ruiz’s grandparents and uncle were able to return to their home in Riverhead and rejoin their family stateside nearly a week after the storm.
“When we got in that plane it was something beautiful, we couldn’t believe it,” Cruz said.
But Ruiz said that many in the island are still trapped in a hellish situation that worsens by the day. The latest official reports are grim: about 80 percent of the island is still without electricity, around 30 percent have no running water, and those who do are required to boil it or disinfect it. Nearly half of the island has no working cell phones or internet, fuel to cook and gasoline for vehicles is scarce, almost half of the sewage treatment plants are still not operating and water-borne diseases are starting to spread.
On top of that, Ruiz said, there is a mosquito infestation and lice, rodents, cockroaches, flies and other pests have increased and are starting to cause real problems.
Four deaths are already being investigated as possible cases of a disease spread by water contaminated by animals’ urine, and a total of 10 people have come down with possible leptospirosis, said Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rosello in a news conference Oct. 13.
“The situation is dire, people are dying. What you hear from officials is not the same thing that people are really experiencing,” Cruz and Carrasquillo said.
Joining Forces with other local Puerto Ricans
Moved by the need of so many, Ruiz started mobilizing through a group she started on Facebook called “Boricuas en Long Island ” or Puerto Ricans in Long Island. She joined forces with Lackhmy Ortega, a fellow “Boricua” whose daughters in Puerto Rico were also unable to be reached. She is a Red Cross volunteer and is specialized in remediation.
“We realized that people were not getting help fast enough, or it was non-existent, so we decided to do it ourselves,” Ortega said. “We started this journey with the only goal to help. Social media has been our best ally,” she said.
Ortega set up a Go Fund Me account (https://www.gofundme.com/suppliespr), Ruiz started to collect donated items. Everything they fundraised goes directly to people in need.
They created a list of local people that had not been able to reach their families. Ruiz would be the contact person in the US and Ortega in Puerto Rico. Within days, Ortega bought a satellite phone, traveled to Puerto Rico with two big bags full of donations and after reaching her daughters, started driving up and down the island looking for the lost family members. So far, they have connected between 30-40 families.
“It is indescribable, the moment when the family in Long Island can hear for the first time the voices of their loved ones here in Puerto Rico,” she said.
Ortega said, that even though there are moments of relief and joy like when a family or friend has been found, she encountered a country that had been destroyed, unrecognizable, plunged in darkness and uncertainty.
“Puerto Ricans are naturally boisterous, happy and very musical. I was struck by the silence. No music, no sounds in the air, it was as if our spirit had been lost too,” she said. “There is a desperation, a helplessness, people are stressed, anxious and depressed.”
Ortega said that sometimes, after she has driven for a few hours or reached some of the families in her list she has to go to her car and cry.
“I despair sometimes. You feel so helpless. There are supplies in the ports, there are volunteers from big nonprofits and other organizations, but somehow the logistics of it all are not working properly and people are not getting the help,” she said.” I don’t know what it is, but everything feels so inaccessible. My own 89-year-old grandmother has not been visited even once by anybody official.”
Ortega said that what is working best for them is the network they have created with the people they have encountered. Through them they have been able to help more, whether evacuating people to the mainland or helping set up three community kitchens in different parts of the country, they feel little by little they are making a difference.
“People are getting Cheez-its, jerky, chocolate chips, apple sauce and water from official sources. That is not a nutritious meal. These grassroots volunteer networks are very important for the small communities,” Ortega said.
Ruiz and Ortega explained that now their biggest challenge was to transport the many donated goods they and other partners collected from Long Island to Puerto Rico. They said they want to charter a plane and bring the supplies directly to the people they identified because if they do it through a big nonprofit they said they would lose control of the items donated and would not know if they reached the communities they intended or when. But chartering a plane, even at a discounted price and for humanitarian purposes, is costly and can easily reach $100,000.
“We will continue to work and collect items and funds despite the challenges,” said Ruiz. ‘My family is here with me, I’m one of the lucky ones, but it breaks my heart to know there are still so many others that need help.”
Preferred items are: baby wipes, towels and sanitary pads.