Opinion: despite storm challenges, Puerto Rico residents ‘keep moving forward’

CUNY students, many of them from Queens, participated in a service trip to Puerto Rico. Photos courtesy of Andrew Sokolof.

CUNY students, many of them from Queens, participated in a service trip to Puerto Rico. Photos courtesy of Andrew Sokolof.

By Andrew Sokolof

Special to the Eagle

The City University of New York/ CUNY Service Corps selected a small student leader group of 25 to serve in the first Winter Service Corps Puerto Rico (#SCPR19) disaster relief program.

We were all previously part of the first ever Summer 2018 program that sent over 200 CUNY students to assist in the rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico after the devastating damage caused by Hurricane Maria.

After being selected, I decided to go because I had developed a strong connection and solidarity with the island and people of Puerto Rico. I knew that the rebuilding work on the island is still strongly lacking, folks are still in need of help as they struggle to rebuild their lives. There is nothing more meaningful than beginning the new year by helping provide a family with a dry, resilient roof over their heads. There are so many families still living in shocking conditions in their own homes, exposed day and night to the elements, that they should not have to live in, nearly two years ago now.

The situation is serious in Puerto Rico 20 months since Maria hit the island. Rebuilding efforts are slow and lacking in coordination or support at the federal and local levels, and these issues are permeating across all sectors of their society. Thousands of government employees and police officers are quitting their jobs as a result of unjust federal fiscal policies coming from Washington, D.C. cutting their pensions along with unlivable wages.

Puerto Rico is such a unique and beautiful place, it is painful to see the level of neglect evident in the streets, infrastructure, and the number of homeless folks and even animals living on the streets. It is also clear that there are widespread adverse mental health effects with residents and young people showing signs of post-traumatic stress especially when it begins to rain, when lights flicker or when the wind is strong.   

When arriving in San Juan, I looked from our plane below before landing and saw so many temporary blue roofs still remained and looked the same from my first visit 6 months prior. During my time there, when working with NECHAMA Jewish Response to Disaster, I joined a staff member in doing home assessments and heard firsthand from a senior living in his damaged home, how his small home leaks every time it rains, which can be several times a week. He explained to me that FEMA visited his house several months after the hurricane and sent him a small check but never returned to repair his roof. He has since tried to patch his roof with items and debris he finds on the streets. There are countless thousands of Puerto Rican families going through the same. I read in local papers that people are actually still waiting to have temporary blue plastic roofs or tarps installed, many lack paperwork to even qualify for assistance and remain ineligible for any type of aid.

During our January visit, I had fundraised some money to buy toys to donate to children for the Three Kings Day (3 Reyes Magos) holiday that is very popular there. With several other students, we pooled our funds and donated dozens of toys to a women and children’s shelter for victims of violence.

While many residents are not getting the support they need, Puerto Ricans have shown they are such resilient people given the colonial history. I've heard residents tell us that they've lived in neglect for many years and that they will just continue to work hard "y hechar pa'lante" or "keep moving forward". The homeowners at our work sites were very appreciative of our help and work. They greeted us and fed us lunch, snacks, and fruits and drinks almost daily even with their limited financial situations. On one occasion, we noticed that the homeowner who fed our group lunch had no food left for herself to eat. It was a moment where we realized after how real the situation was and how mindful we needed to be to serve and not burden the families.

People in Puerto Rico still need all types of help and support. They need for us to not forget that they are there enduring and persevering in the aftermath of one of the worst hurricanes to destroy the Caribbean. They also need us to keep visiting and supporting them with tourism dollars to help re-energize the economy. here is still a need for food items like canned foods, diapers, toys, toiletries and most importantly - real government level support with dedicated funding to fast track and rebuild thousands of homes that remain destroyed; families vulnerable to the next hurricane season that is arriving soon.

Queens residents and New Yorkers can help by taking a relatively affordable trip there, spending their dollars and supporting the local economy. Businesses are waiting and eager to serve patrons and not only in the San Juan area. By spending tourism dollars, we will help revitalize local businesses and put money in peoples pockets there faster than any government response now can do.

Folks can definitely also help by donating any dollar amount ($5, $20 or more) to the few reputable nonprofit organizations on the ground there that are making real differences like NECHAMA Jewish Response to Disaster. CUNY students have been paired with NECHAMA staff in the San Juan/Guaynabo area in both the summer, winter and this coming summer 2019. Any amount will benefit and help the organization provide more to people in need. They go where FEMA doesn't and really immerse themselves with the local people in the areas they work in. The roof repair projects they take on are free of charge to homeowners, including the materials used.

Other organizations doing amazing work in much-needed areas are Paz Para La Mujer (Peace for Women), PRCONCRA which works with people living with HIV, trans youth, and trafficking survivors in the San Juan area, and Finca Conciencia/La Colmena (Conscious Farm/ The Beehive) which is doing agricultural work on the island of Vieques. Lastly, The Sato Project - rescues abused and abandoned dogs and puts them up for adoption especially with the crisis of abandoned pets all over the island post-Maria. They are reputable for their work.

Andrew Sokoloff is a CUNY Baruch College student, Cofounder/Copresident of the 89th Street Tenants Unidos Association and a member of the Land Use and Youth Committees for Queens Community Board 3.