The New Yorkers Worrying About Puerto Rico, From Afar

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Photo: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Over 1 million Puerto Ricans live in New York, making the city home to the largest Boricua community off the island. As Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, many in the city were cut off from their loved ones. Those who have heard from family offer bleak reports: an island stripped of vegetation, daylong lines for gas and food, roads blocked and houses destroyed, and no way to communicate with people in other towns.

Gretchen Crespo-Cruz, Long Island City, health care
I speak with my mom every single day. I just moved to New York a year ago for work, and I don’t have a lot of friends and family here. Tuesday night, right before the hurricane hit, I called my mom to make sure she was prepared. My mom is tough, but she was scared. After Wednesday, I wasn’t able to reach anyone for five days. I was at work, in my cubicle, on my computer, watching the news all the time. I saw hospitals without electricity and collapsing shelters, and I had no idea if my family was all right. We live on the west side, in Añasco, where it’s super-green and lush. When I finally talked to my mom she said, “There’s not one leaf left here. The trees look like they’ve been burned by the wind.” Thankfully, none of my family has a chronic medical condition, but one of my best friends had a death in the family due to the lack of services. My mom works in a factory. They were able to open on Monday, but on Tuesday they closed because there’s not enough diesel for the generator. That means no paycheck. The things people need aren’t always obvious, like cash. The ATMs aren’t working, so if you don’t have cash, you don’t have any money. Many people still don’t know that we are U.S. citizens. They think that because we speak Spanish, we’re Mexicans or something. Yeah, we are U.S. citizens, so I think we deserve the same help as any other Americans. This is the worst experience that I’ve ever had, even though I’m not there. I feel like the hurricane passed over me without the wind.

Karla Marrero-Santos, Long Island City, public health
I’m doing the definition of living day-by-day. I’ve been in the city for two years and I just accepted a job offer back in Puerto Rico. I was supposed to move back in two weeks, but now I have no idea when I’ll be able to get back. My sister borrowed a phone and called me on Thursday, about a day-and-a-half after the hurricane. I’m from a town called Rio Grande, on the east side. A week after the hurricane, my parents drove to San Juan, because that was the only area where there’s cell service. But gasoline is like gold, people are waiting in lines at the gas station for up to eight hours. People are sleeping near gas stations so they can be first in line the next day. Costco opened, and since my parents drove to San Juan, they were going to go buy groceries, but it’s impossible to get in. Right now, the USPS is not working. FedEx, UPS, there’s no way for us to send packages, and flights aren’t running. We need more help from the federal government. I believed that even before this hurricane. Everything is more expensive, everything is harder to get, and we depend on the United States for everything.

John Blasco, Lower East Side, communications director for Councilmember Rosie Mendez
I have two great uncles and some second cousins in Ponce, in the southern part of the island. We still haven’t heard from them directly, but we heard from someone in their town that they saw them at the gas station. There’s a lot of us in this area in Manhattan who have family and friends in Puerto Rico — you know, every year we have the Loisaida Festival down here. Right now, we’re trying to help with resources. The city has donation spots at a bunch of firehouses for diapers, baby food, batteries, first-aid supplies, and feminine-hygiene products. For people who want to donate money, we’ve been recommending the Hispanic Federation. Puerto Ricans are strong people.

Sasha Burgos-Conde, Nyack, graphic artist
My mom and her side are from Saint Just, in the San Juan metro area, but I have family all over the island. I’ve been able to reach my mom on and off, but it’s patchy. Trees came crashing down, and the view from my mom’s house is completely different. The mountain has been stripped bare. My aunt lives next door to my mom, but she’s wheelchair-bound and stayed with her ex-husband during the storm. When she tried to come back, the path was totally blocked. My mom was trapped in her house for three days. She used water that flooded the house to flush the toilet. My biggest worry is that people won’t have safe drinking water. At one point my mom paid $25 for a case of water that is usually $4. My mom was supposed to have surgery on her eyes, but obviously that was canceled. My grandmother is in a nursing home on the island. The nursing home is okay; they have generators, but my grandmother has dementia and the other day she tried to escape. I sent some packages that haven’t arrived yet. I know it’s not allowed, but I mailed batteries because goddamn it, my cousin wanted D batteries to keep the fans going to try to keep his medication cool. I have another box I’m getting ready to send with a solar-powered, hand-crank radio and feminine napkins for my 13-year-old cousin and a coloring book for my 6-year-old cousin. I’ve heard that people are starting to steal things. My mom said they looted the Walmart near her and instead of stealing the generator, they damaged it so no one could use it. I would have preferred if they had stolen it. We’re Americans, we want our MTV — we’re not used to this. My big fear is that everyone is going to leave and the only people left will be the grandparents with nobody to take care of them.

Carla Aviles, Queens, sixth-grade math teacher
My mom was visiting my sister in New Jersey when Maria hit, but my father was in Puerto Rico by himself. We didn’t hear from him until Sunday, four days after. My dad had walked to the supermarket where I used to work and borrowed a phone from someone there who had service. We talked for less than two minutes. He said he was okay, but we haven’t heard anything since then. I have so many questions. He said, “Oh, I’m fine,” but fathers hold things back because they don’t want you to worry. He’s pre-diabetic, so I want to make sure he is eating right. And I still haven’t heard anything from my best friend. My job has been a good distraction. Last week, one kid asked, “Ms. Aviles, have you been able to talk to your family?” and I had to say, “No, not yet.” Then this week, they asked again, and I was able to say, “Yes, I heard from my dad.”

Melissa Mark-Viverito, East Harlem/Bronx, speaker for the New York City Council
Total chaos. I just got back last Tuesday night. I was there for three days. I don’t think FEMA knows how to handle a crisis of this magnitude. It’s devastating to see the island that’s so lush and green stripped. There are hospitals operating on generators, which is precarious for people who rely on electricity for dialysis or a breathing ventilator. I was born and raised in San Juan, and I moved to New York when I was 18. My mother lives in the greater metropolitan area, so I was able to contact her right after the hurricane, but I know people who still haven’t heard anything. You can’t individually help every person, but we did facilitate some communication. One gentleman, an NYPD officer, told us he hadn’t heard from his father in San Juan, and we were able to find the father. Now we’re trying to figure out how to get supplies there. The airlines are stepping up, but we need barges. This is the worst disaster I’ve seen.

The New Yorkers Worrying About Puerto Rico, From Afar