It is a feeling I am still getting used to, the one that comes with waking up to another category 4 hurricane ravaging Puerto Rico less than two weeks after Irma, rendering my homeland unrecognizable overnight. Maria has since lodged itself in my bones, refusing to leave. Every day I build more space for it as its slow devastation continues.
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Although the storm made landfall 27 days ago, its aftermath has no foreseeable ending. Puerto Ricans are suffering, hungry, sick, and dying. The official death count is at around 45, but some credible news outlets are saying the actual toll could be over 450. Around 87 percent of Puerto Rico is without power, and restoring electricity to the 3.6 million islanders will take months. While 65 percent of hospitals have been re-energized, they are connected to an unstable grid; all 69 are suffering medicine and supply shortages. More than 35 percent of homes have no potable water. FEMA reports a daily deficit of 1.8 million to 5.8 million meals for the over 2 million with uncertain food security. Only 25 percent of cellphone towers survived the storm, and almost half of the island still lacks coverage. Over 4,000 refugees still have nowhere to go.
My immediate family is safe at home, but dozens of friends and family members have scattered. This story is not unique. Since October 3rd, Florida alone has received over 10,000 Puerto Ricans. Everybody has a parent, a child, a sibling, a cousin, or a friend who has left. Many will never return. El Yunque, our national rainforest, is broken and brown. Its once lush peaks may take over a century to recover their full foliage. We are people who love our land, and the land has been destroyed.
Puerto Ricans around the world are working together to coordinate hurricane relief efforts. Home to over 135,000 of us, Philadelphia holds a unique position, as well as a responsibility, to create a new future for Puerto Rico.
It’s a new and uncharted Puerto Rico after Maria. From the island and from the diaspora, we are learning how to navigate this emerging reality—which includes a bureaucratic and inadequate government response that has exposed the systemic inequalities that plague the U.S. territory on a local and national scale.
In light of this, citizen action and grassroots organizing are key to helping Puerto Rico get back on its feet. Puerto Ricans on the island and around the world are working together to coordinate hurricane relief efforts. Home to over 135,000 of us, Philadelphia holds a unique position, as well as a responsibility, to create a new future for Puerto Rico. The city has already been a host to a slew of post-Maria aid initiatives, and there are many opportunities to get involved. Here are some ways to get started.
The situation on the ground is constantly evolving: Read the news and stay aware. Assess what is going on so you can figure out how you can best help Puerto Rico. Use this online tool to get accurate and frequent updates about infrastructure and public utility restoration.
Use Social Media.
Due to the lack of telecommunications, social media has become a prime tool to get important news disseminated throughout the island, as well as to provide information to the outside world. Puerto Ricans all over the world have been regularly updating their social networks. Share and create content that contains relevant news or information about the situation to amplify the audiences receiving information both on the island and beyond. These posts also keeps Puerto Rico present on people’s feeds.
Puerto Ricans cannot vote for President. They have no voting officials in the House or the Senate. Their fellow Americans can make a huge difference by speaking up for them. Congress has the power to offer much needed debt relief and federal aid packages. It can also repeal The Jones Act, a series of maritime trading laws that have crippled relief efforts. (The Trump administration did briefly waive the law, but that waiver expired last week.) Contact your federal officials and let them know that the island needs their help. Don’t know what to say or write? Puerto Ricans in Action has a template you can use.
As natural disasters often do, Hurricane Maria impacted the youth, the elderly, and impoverished communities of color disproportionately. Donate to the following Puerto Rico based organizations to directly help the most vulnerable sectors of the population.
- In Philadelphia, Puerto Rican and Latino groups joined forces to create the UnidosPa’ PR fund, which raised over $35,000 this past weekend alone. Online donations can be made here, and locations for in-person donations can be found here.
- University of Pennsylvania students also started the Students with Puerto Rico campaign, which has grown to include over 115 chapters in universities across the United States. So far, the GoFundMe has already raised nearly $210,000 (including $20,000 donated by Jimmy Fallon). Proceeds will go to Unidos por Puerto Rico, a public-private initiative created by by the office of the First Lady Beatriz Isabel Roselló. (Full disclosure: I was involved in organizing this campaign.)
- Instituto Nueva Escuela is an NGO dedicated to improving the wellbeing of Puerto Rican students through the implementation of Montessori education. After the hurricane, the organization is looking for donations to rebuild their 49 schools and neighboring communities.
- The World Central Kitchen utilizes local restaurants, businesses, and volunteers to feed the hungry in disaster zones. Since Hurricane Maria, the WCK has provided over 450,000 meals to Puerto Ricans, with an average of 50,000 meals per day. Donations are needed to maintain the operation running on the island.
- ConPRmetidos is an organization that started in 2012 to “strategically engage the diaspora’s resources to implement solutions that provoke systemic change on the island.” After Maria, it shifted its efforts to financing long-term structural repairs, restoring the power grid, and engaging in needs assessment efforts through Connect Relief. You can donate to ComPRmetidos here.
- Iniciativa Comunitaria is a nonprofit that aims to drive community-oriented public policy through lobbying and community engagement initiatives. Donations will go towards bringing food, water, medicine, and other much needed supplies to some of the hardest hit areas in the municipalities of Loiza, San Juan, and Toa Baja.
- The Hurricane Maria Community Relief and Recovery Fund, organized by the Center for Popular Democracy, is focused on providing grants to local grassroots organizations focused on equitable rebuilding and immediate relief initiatives in the hardest-hit communities.
Donate Needed Items and Organize Supply Drives.
Nonprofits, schools, churches, and community groups throughout Philadelphia are collecting supplies and coordinating shipping to Puerto Rico. Here are some places you can drop off items, along with supply lists and details.
- Norris Square Community Alliance
- Tilden Middle School
- Unidos Pa’ PR
- Grace Kids Academy on behalf of Concilio.
Is the drop-off location too far? Is there something needed that isn’t being collected? Here are some tips about how to start a supply drive in your own community! The City of Philadelphia also offers advice about how to organize. Get in touch with local Puerto Rican and Latino organizations such as Concilio, Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha or Unidos Pa’ PR to coordinate delivery and shipping.
Organizations in Philadelphia and beyond are providing aid and relief in different capacities. Do not self-deploy: Check in and ask what help is needed. Then assess how you can contribute to relief efforts.
- Register here to volunteer for Unidos Pa’ PR to help organize and pack collected supplies.You can also organize your own fundraising event or supply drive with Unidos—just message the organizers through their Facebook page.
- Are you a local business or restaurant owner? Organize an event with Puerto Rico Rising, a group dedicated to coordinating fundraisers in Philadelphia and New Jersey. The proceeds of all of their events go to Unidos por Puerto Rico. If you are interested in collaborating with them, reach out to Mariela Suárez Colón.
- FEMA is looking to fill temporary positions immediately in Puerto Rico.
- The National Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster is looking to deploy willing volunteers to Puerto Rico. Register here to help.