TOA BAJA – Heavy rains fell last week in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, a town west of San Juan. The sound of the downpour took 68-year-old Carmen Rivera back to September 20 – the day Hurricane Maria roared into Puerto Rico and destroyed her home.
“It broke the roof, and then the water started coming up,” Rivera recalled. “My granddaughter, she was gonna drown. And I was gonna drown. We’re gonna, you know, die there.”
Maria’s winds knocked most of Rivera’s roof off. But even scarier was the flood surge from a nearby lake. It filled her house and almost swallowed her 10-year-old granddaughter.
“She went underwater,” said Rivera. "I never saw a flood that high, you know. It looked like a movie that I saw.”
The little girl was rescued. But no one could save the poor, retired grandmother’s house – where she’d lived for 31 years. Or any of her belongings. For a month, she and her family took shelter at a dank local school gym with almost nothing.
“It hurts your spirit,” Rivera said, her voice choking as rain fell harder on the corrugated gym roof. “I lost everything. You know, I won’t talk about it because I’m gonna cry. It’s very sad.”
Here’s the other sad part. For weeks, Rivera and hundreds of other hurricane refugees from her Toa Baja barrio saw little if any relief aid. Food and water were scarce. They wore the same clothes for days on end. No soap. No toothpaste. And like the rest of Puerto Rico – no electricity.
That caught the attention of folks in the more affluent and less damaged town of Dorado next door, like Lisandra Báez. She and other Dorado residents collected food and water for the Toa Baja victims. But it wasn’t enough. So Báez went to San Juan to seek help from relief officials.
“At first I was going to get registered as a volunteer and turn my house into a place of aid distribution,” said Báez. “But I went there and it was like a circus. In a line for about three hours. Three hours that I could have invested in something useful.”
Báez also noticed how full the port of San Juan was with relief supplies. Aid was getting to the U.S. island territory. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, was having big problems moving it into the demolished island.
“We needed to do another thing,” Báez said. “We couldn’t wait on the authorities. We couldn’t sit around and just do nothing.”
Báez contacted a Puerto Rican schoolmate now living in West Palm Beach, whose pilot husband could fly a relief plane in from Florida. And a relative in Orlando whose church group could send a sea shipment. She secured an airplane and a boat container with donated aid to be taken directly to Toa Baja: “Soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, underwear, flashlights, solar batteries, first aid, medicines.”
And things you might not think of. Like large buckets for capturing rain water – so Toa Baja victims like Rivera no longer had to use their precious, meager drinking water for washing and bathing.
But perhaps most important: plastic tarps to cover the hundreds of naked roofs in Toa Baja so families could move back into their homes to clean up – and finally start their lives over.
Last week Báez’s group began hammering tarps onto Toa Baja houses like Enrique González’s. The truck driver’s home, and those of his neighbors, look as if they’ve been shattered by wrecking balls. So does their street, still strewn with rotting tree and furniture debris as far as the eye can see.
“But today,” González said, “we get to stay home instead of going back to the shelter. For the first time in a month, we can stay.”
PROPS TO JETS
And not just in Toa Baja. It’s one of scores of towns across the island that have benefited from direct relief aid flown in by the Puerto Rican diaspora in Florida. Especially South Florida.
Remember that schoolmate of Báez’s who lives in West Palm Beach? Her name is Astrid Anduze-Meléndez. She’s originally from Manatí, on Puerto Rico’s north coast – and since Maria she’s organized numerous relief flights into Puerto Rico from airports up and down South Florida. (See video below)
“This all started because I have a 93-year-old grandmother in Puerto Rico and we were desperate to get her out,” Anduze said recently at the Boca Raton Airport.
“That got the ball rolling into seeing if we could get supplies into Puerto Rico – and then let’s see how we grow and be able to help towns and refugee centers and hospitals.”
The first flights were piloted by Anduze’s husband Alex in a Kodiak prop plane. Then they put up a Facebook page called Puerto Rico Relief Flight.
“The networking,” Astrid said, “has been incredible.”
Keith Fetky isn’t Puerto Rican; he’s a director at a West Palm Beach charter jet company, Exclusive Charter Services. But he became part of the Anduze network. ECS has wealthy Puerto Rican clients paying thousands of dollars right now to get family and friends out of Puerto Rico. Those jets going into Puerto Rico are empty. So Fetky’s customers agreed to donate them as relief supply carriers.
“They’re happy that their well-being can help other people that are in dire need at this point,” said Fetky. “They feel like they’re paying it forward.”
After a mutual friend hooked Fetky up with the Anduzes, thousands more pounds of aid were getting more quickly to many more Puerto Rican towns. That relief included the most desperately sought item in Puerto Rico right now: generators, which found their way to places like the Clínico del Mar, a private medical lab that serves thousands of people in the town of Vega Baja.
“The lab was closed,” says medical technologist Maggie Meléndez, who runs Clínico del Mar. “The patients were waiting for us to give lab results. But our hands were tied.”
After Maria, many of Meléndez’s customers caught bacterial infections like leptospirosis and mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika. But the lab couldn’t help them because it had no power. And it wouldn’t for weeks because it couldn’t get a generator through official relief channels.
Then Meléndez’s son and lab administrator, José Ignacio Nater, heard about the Anduzes’ relief flights.
“Everything was paralyzed, but now we’re back in business,” said Nater, showing the new 7000-watt generator behind the lab. “If it wasn’t for that relief flight, we couldn’t be here right now talking to you.”
It’s a story playing out all over Puerto Rico – and South Florida.
A third of Florida’s 1 million Puerto Ricans live in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties. Their aid flights, of course, can’t replace the FEMA or U.S. military relief efforts in Puerto Rico. But Nater and other Puerto Ricans on the island, who are U.S. citizens, say the diaspora has at least helped plug large federal government holes.
“Puerto Rico was not ready for this [hurricane], and I don’t think FEMA was ready for it,” says Debbie Sosa, who helps lead a Puerto Rican relief flight project in Miami, out of a Doral warehouse.
“The island logistics were too crazy and the red tape had gotten in the way of getting aid to the people. So we just started making connections.”
This week Sosa’s group is sending 5000 pounds of supplies in a donated jet to half a dozen communities, including hard-hit towns in the island’s interior like Orocovis and Ciales.
Sosa says the enterprise is also helping make the state’s Puerto Rican diaspora more tight-knit.
“This is going to make us stronger,” says Sosa. “We want to be more like the Cuban community here – we want Puerto Rico to have a voice in Florida.”
It will need one – as Puerto Ricans back in the town of Toa Baja know. People like Maritza Rodríguez. While Florida relief flight volunteers placed tarps on her roof last week, the grandmother tearfully searched for family photos not ruined in the hurricane.
“Someday we’ll sing in this house again,” Rodriguez said. “This is a start.”
A start that probably would’ve been delayed much longer if someone hadn’t called for a plane from Florida.