Residents of Puerto Rico and neighboring islands are picking up the pieces of their lives after Maria, a category 4 hurricane, whipped through the Caribbean this week. Locally, residents are on pins and needles as they wait to hear from loved ones but with toppled towers and virtually no power on the island, it's been a waiting game.
“There is concern among everybody,” said Tricia Cruz-Irving at IBERO American Action League in Rochester. “For example, I’m of Chilean and Puerto Rican descent and I have family in Puerto Rico and I haven’t heard a word from them. Nobody has.”
Rochester has one of the highest populations of Puerto Ricans, just behind cities like Cleveland and Orlando so the pain is felt here too.
“You’re not going to get much out of people. The only thing you see or hear is on the news,” said Julio Vazquez, a local education advocate and co-founder of Eugenio Maria De Hostos Charter School. He texted his “compadre” but hasn’t heard back. Phone calls and messages on social media have largely gone unanswered by others too.
Winds easily reached 115 miles per hour and several inches of rain caused flooding in almost every Puerto Rican town when Maria, a category 4 at landfall, swept through. It is expected to take several months until electricity can be restored throughout Puerto Rico, so it may be a while until some Rochester area residents know the status of their loved ones.
Audberto Velez has been stateside since 2007 and is one of few able to reach his family. They live in Old San Juan, a more modern section of Puerto Rico. Vazquez and Velez said because of inequality there, the barrios, or outlying areas, were impacted harder.
"They don't have light, they only have water," said Velez of his family's situation. His family was "lucky"; the building they're in was able to use a generator giving the hallways light and they have reception but during the hurricane itself, Velez was unable to contact them.
"All the trees are gone," said Velez. "The ones still up have no leaves. My dad, with his sense of humor, he was telling me [the trees] were to get arrested for indecent exposure because they're naked. All of these circumstances, and he keeps a sense of humor."
“Because of the economic situation of Puerto Rico, the infrastructure has been neglected. The aqueduct system, the power lines, everything has suffered some setbacks. This makes it even worse obviously,” said Vazquez.
In addition to worrying about their families, Rochester area people are scrambling to put together some relief efforts. Cruz-Irving said IBERO is working with local advocates to organize a fundraiser to send supplies but details are still be worked out. There are also smaller-scale drives including a Grishmary Rosado's, a local woman, idea to use flat-rate boxes at the post office to send supplies to the island.
“It’s frustrating because you don’t know what’s going on. You want to to talk to them, you want to know if anyone got hurt or whatever and you can’t do that. Yeah, it takes a toll on you,” said Vazquez.
Another factor? Puerto Rico’s poverty and inequality. According to Census data, close to half of all residents are impoverished. That could complicate recovery efforts.
“I say to people you haven’t seen poor until you’ve gone to another country or island,” said Cruz-Irving. "When you go to another country or island and you see people who are living there. There living in wooden houses and shacks and structures that look like sheds. So when you think about those people who lost their homes, what to them was their home, and now it’s completely gone, where do they go? What do they do?”
“Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. There are 3.5 million Americans living in Puerto Rico so the federal government has to respond,” said Vazquez.
Velez said now is the time to rebuild and perhaps where efforts matter most.
"In a hurricane you can't do much," he said. "That's nature fighting back. The aftermath that's when we do our footwork. That's when Puerto Rico comes into one and we all help each other. It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, we don't care."
Velez says he knows his island will recover. As a "proud Puerto Rican" he believes in the strength and unity of the Puerto Ricans there. He wanted to deliver a message to the people of Puerto Rico in Spanish:
'Ayudarnos todo. Todos juntos como si fueramos una sola persona. Tu sabes como es...nos ayudamos uno a la otro en momentos asi. Y eso es lo que tenemos que hacer ahora mismo.
("We help everyone. All together as if we were one person. You know how it is ... we help each other at times like this. And that's what we have to do right now.")