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State Rep. Minnie Gonzalez went to Puerto Rico five years ago to help residents deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. This time, she was there to witness the devastation of Hurricane Fiona in real time.
“It was horrible. I was terrified. Me and my husband were looking through the windows, the wind, the water. It was terrible. It was terrible. Now I can understand the people that went through Maria. I understand what they went through,” she said.
Gonzalez, D-Hartford, said that she went to Puerto Rico with her family to spend time with her sister, who has pulmonary fibrosis, way before Hurricane Fiona was expected to arrive. She said that she had heard that it would just be a tropical storm.
“I came here and … I never thought about something like this. Then, when I heard about the storm, people would say, ‘Well, that’s a tropical storm.’ People are telling us, ‘Don’t be scared. Don’t get scared. You know, nothing’s going to happen. A lot of rain,’” she said.
But once Hurricane Fiona arrived, Gonzalez said that people became very frightened, especially after experiencing Hurricane Maria.
“Now people … were running. … They were scared. People that went through … Maria, they were really scared. My husband and I were not prepared. We would not be prepared, because we don’t have a generator,” she said. “We were not prepared. We’re not prepared for that. To see [the hurricane], being in a house or look into the window, with all that wind and all that rain, I thought it was the end of the world.”
Gonzalez spoke to The Courant on Friday after a press briefing during which U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, the Hispanic Federation and Americares provided updates on aid to Puerto Rico.
Murphy said he and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, both D-Conn., signed a letter with several Congress members urging the Biden administration announce that the federal government is going to pick up 100% of the cost of remediation and disaster work in Puerto Rico. He said Congress should provide emergency assistance to Puerto Rico.
“Now we have a disaster fund that has enough money in it for the short term. We will be able to get the money we need to Puerto Rico this month and next month, but soon we are going to need a supplemental appropriation to deal with cleanup costs that is in the billions of dollars,” Murphy said.
Cora Mally, Americares director of international emergency response, said the agency is prepared to deliver “critically needed medicines and relief supplies” from its global distribution center in Stamford “to help survivors recover. Our relief workers are ready [with] chronic disease medication, insulin, tetanus, vaccines, hygiene kits and first aid items as we speak. We are also prepared to provide emergency funding to help repair damaged health centers in the hardest hit communities.”
Hispanic Federation Vice President for Policy and Strategic Engagement Ingrid Álvarez-DiMarzo said the organization was able to establish operations in Puerto Rico with an office and permanent staff after Hurricane Maria, and the staff was on the ground helping residents prepare for Hurricane Fiona and deal with the aftermath.
The federation also quickly launched a $100,000 Emergency Assistance Fund, which is nowhere near enough to respond to imminent needs of the most vulnerable on the island, she said.
“We’re happy to report that our entire team and their families are safe and faring well, and that they have tirelessly been working to prepare for Hurricane Fiona. In anticipation of Fiona touching down, the team distributed over 11,000 solar lamps,” Álvarez-DiMarzo said. “As soon as roads begin to clear, there’s another 20,000 solar lamps to be distributed. We also delivered power generators to some of the island’s most vulnerable patients on dialysis. We plan to distribute more in the days to come.”
Álvarez-DiMarzo said as of Friday morning, 63% of households didn’t have electricity and requests were coming in for water, while diesel is running out, causing supermarkets and gas stations to close. She said the federally qualified health centers are stressed because of the lack of diesel to keep generators going, and they have pending requests for generators for medically compromised residents on the island.
The federation is committed to partnering with community-based organizations in Puerto Rico as they mobilize supplies to them, she said.
Álvarez-DiMarzo said one of their main requests to the federal government is to facilitate delivery of help and finances to nonprofits on the ground, who in many cases, assess needs and distribute aid faster and more efficiently than the government can.
Gonzalez said that there was no water or power Friday in her hometown in Puerto Rico. She had just gotten out of a line, where she waited for a couple of hours to purchase gas for her sister’s generator that she bought on her behalf five years ago during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The generator has to remain filled with gas, as her sister depends on oxygen at all times.
Gonzalez said a woman in her hometown told her that she and her husband almost died when a mountain came down on her house during the storm. The mudslide pushed her car into the living room and they were somehow able “to get out of the house,” she said
Americares Senior Director of Latin America and Caribbean Programs Dr. Brenda Rivera Garcia said in a live update from San Juan that “as floodwaters start to recede, utility crews are now able to directly reach those areas in southern Puerto Rico, but they’re still in the dark. Some 63% of households are still without power, 97% are without potable water, 56% of hospitals and 88% of community health clinics are still working under generator power. They’re all lacking basic utilities to take care of families and their health needs.”
Rivera Garcia said that the Americares Puerto Rico team is working closely with the community health clinics across the island, as the centers are often the first individuals on site to provide help and resources to their patients.
State Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr. said this is a personal situation as Puerto Rico is home for him.
“I’ve taken over six trips of relief back to Puerto Rico. And every time I go, my heart is glad while I’m there and my heart is broken when I’m leaving, because I know that it’s only a matter of when, not if I return with the same problem,” he said. “Here we are. The Tropical Storm Fiona did so much damage … from a standpoint of flooding, mudslides and physical property. The death toll is low. But as Ingrid said, it’s very early in the process and we don’t know what’s going to happen with those that are already compromised.”
Reyes said he has cousins that are in a foot of water five days after the storm, his sister is there and his niece who is a nurse, in a town 15 miles from Eduardo, can’t go to work unless she goes around the whole island but even then does not know if she can get there.