Quantcast

Trump Failed Puerto Rico. These People Picked up the Cost

Insights + Opinion
Luz Hernandez with her niece, Noemi Quinones, who was the first of Hernandez's relatives to ask for help. Nexus Media

By Jeremy Deaton

Every morning, Luz Hernandez goes to work at her hair salon on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood fixture without a website or a Facebook page, where a trim costs $40 and customers can get a cup of coffee while they wait. Every night, she returns to a full fridge in an air-conditioned home in the Bronx. Income from the salon allows her to live comfortably, though not lavishly — but compared to her family in Puerto Rico, who were devastated by Hurricane Maria, she feels like royalty.


After the hurricane, she recalls thinking, "I have everything here — water, lights, a roof over my head — and they're over there without any lights." Hernandez said she could not sit down to a hot meal in a cool home while her brothers and nieces and nephews on the island languished without food or air conditioning. Worried about her family, she took it upon herself to deliver the relief the federal government had failed to provide.

In the aftermath of the storm, Hernandez said, she spent around $8,000 to send aid to family back home, in addition to another $2,000 donated by her clients. "I swear to God, I have the best clients," she said. The money paid for canned beef and chicken, coffee, peanut butter, batteries, solar-powered radios and lamps, as well as generators needed to operate fans, refrigerators and medical equipment, such as her brother's dialysis machine.

"I don't think I did anything so heroic. I did what I had to do," she said. "I took care of whoever needed the most." She only wishes the government had done the same.

Luz Hernandez has spent $8,000 sending canned food, batteries and power generators to her family in Puerto Rico.

Source: Nexus Media

Hernandez is remarkable, though not unusual, among members of the Puerto Rican diaspora — many of whom devoted hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to helping victims of Hurricane Maria. Those interviewed for this story said they were angry that the government had failed to provide relief, particularly to rural areas, and they remain baffled that President Trump continues to oppose additional disaster aid for the island, which is still recovering from the storm.

Fernando "Ponce" Laspina, who runs El Maestro Inc., a boxing gym and Puerto Rican cultural center in the Bronx, recalled the lack of aid after Maria. "The federal government really didn't do the job," he said. "We know a lot of older people who died because they didn't get help on time." Like Hernandez, he made it his mission to help those who were left behind.

Fernando Laspina at El Maestro, Inc.

Source: Eddie Aguiar, Hunter College

Laspina said that after the hurricane, El Maestro Inc. filled three 40,000-pound shipping containers with food, water and medical supplies — wheelchairs, walkers, diapers and medicine — and paid around $5,500 to ship each one to a different town desperate for aid. The organization relied on donations and volunteer labor. Dozens of people showed up from around New York City and as far afield as Connecticut and Ohio to contribute goods and help fill the containers.

"We had all kinds of people here," he said. "There were no barriers, you know — black people, white people, Chinese people, young, old, female, male, gay people — it didn't matter. It was just one big family in New York City coming together for Puerto Rico." Meanwhile, he added, "No help from the elected officials."

Edna Benitez took a similar tack, working with Proyecto Matria, a human rights group, to bring relief to a community overlooked for disaster aid. She focused her efforts on Miraflores, a small, mountain town in central Puerto Rico. "This is a community that was marginalized prior to the hurricane," she said. "After the hurricane, they were just devastated, and they spent several weeks without food and just drinking water from the falls."

Edna Benitez, rebuilding a home in Miraflores

Source: Edna Benitez

Benitez was aghast at the dearth of federal aid after the storm. "I said to myself, 'Where is FEMA? Where is the help that we're supposed to get? Are we a part of the United States?'" she said. On Trump, she said, "We know what his agenda is. He wants to build a wall, and he needs funding for that, and I think that that's more important [to him] than people's lives and people's homes and people's dignity." Trump has pushed Congress to include $4 billion in border wall funding in its disaster relief package, all while fighting against additional aid for Puerto Rico.

Frustrated by the government's response to Maria, Benitez partnered with Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan to raise money for her work in Puerto Rico. Donations paid for her and other volunteers to travel to Miraflores to rebuild homes, set up cisterns, and help community members develop small businesses selling locally grown foods and knitted goods. Benitez, 61, has been to Puerto Rico eight times since Hurricane Maria. She has painted houses, sealed roofs and cleared land for farming, dipping into her savings to help fund her efforts. In July, she will be taking a group of teenagers to Miraflores to do farm work.

Contemplating the work of people like Benitez, lifelong New Yorker Elena Martinez said, "The communities in the diaspora in Florida, in Chicago, in New York and Connecticut, they just came through." She added, "I guess it's more real when you know people who were literally affected by it."

Bobby Sanabria, on drums, and his Multiverse Big Band playing a benefit concert for Puerto Rico musicians, October 2017

Source: Bob Ramos

Martinez, who runs the Bronx Music Heritage Center with Puerto Rican jazz drummer Bobby Sanabria, raised money to help musicians on the island pay for housing, food and gas after Maria shut down theaters, restaurants and hotels, making it difficult for them to find work. Sanabria put together a benefit concert after Maria, raising $10,000 for the Jazz Foundation of America's Puerto Rico Relief Fund. He subsequently produced a record of the music of West Side Story, devoting a portion of the proceeds to the effort.

Elsewhere in the city, Surey Miranda and her husband, Victor Martinez, helped families fleeing the hurricane resettle in New York. She and her husband run a Spanish-language website with resources for newcomers, and work closely with displaced families to help them secure housing and apply for food stamps. Miranda said chats about how best to navigate the government bureaucracy can turn into long conversations about the trauma of living through a natural disaster. She said that, in the first few months after the hurricane, she spent around 30 hours a week helping people, sometimes staying up until 3 a.m. consoling survivors, all while working a full-time job.

Surey Miranda (left) with her husband Victor Martinez (right)

Source: Victor Martinez

Miranda believes Trump has neglected Puerto Rico because people living on the island, while citizens, cannot vote for president and have no representation in Congress. However, she said, millions of people of Puerto Rican descent living on the mainland can vote, and they do have some measure of political power. "If you see the numbers, there are more Puerto Ricans stateside than on the island," she said.

Martinez believes the Puerto Rican diaspora, which proved critical in providing relief after the storm, could take Trump to task at the ballot box. "The people here on the mainland who can vote will hopefully take this into account when elections come up," she said.

Moreover, because Maria spurred so many families to migrate to the mainland, where they can vote, the diaspora is gaining power in states like Florida and Pennsylvania. Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria now have the chance to oust a president who refuses to provide the aid the island needs.

Hernandez took some comfort in this. "It's really sad that he's such a racist," she said. "The thing is, the people who moved to … Florida or wherever, they could now go register and vote, maybe change the color of the state."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) speaks during the North American Building Trades Unions Conference at the Washington Hilton April 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. Zach Gibson / Getty Images

Colorado senator and 2020 hopeful Michael Bennet introduced his plan to combat climate change Monday, in the first major policy rollout of his campaign. Bennet's plan calls for the establishment of a "Climate Bank," using $1 trillion in federal spending to "catalyze" $10 trillion in private spending for the U.S. to transition entirely to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Read More Show Less
Foto-Rabe / Pixabay

When Trump's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan in August 2018, its own estimates said the reduced regulations could lead to 1,400 early deaths a year from air pollution by 2030.

Now, the EPA wants to change the way it calculates the risks posed by particulate matter pollution, using a model that would lower the death toll from the new plan, The New York Times reported Monday. Five current or former EPA officials familiar with the plan told The Times that the new method would assume there is no significant health gain by lowering air pollution levels below the legal limit. However, many public health experts say that there is no safe level of particulate matter exposure, which has long been linked to heart and lung disease.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A crate carrying one of the 33 lions rescued from circuses in Peru and Columbia is lifted onto the back of a lorry before being transported to a private reserve on April 30, 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

By Andrea Germanos

Animal welfare advocates are praising soon-to-be introduced legislation in the U.S. that would ban the use of wild animals in traveling circuses.

Read More Show Less
A tornado Monday in Union City, Oklahoma. TicToc by Bloomberg / YouTube screenshot

Extreme weather spawned 18 tornadoes across five states Monday, USA Today reported. Tornadoes were reported in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arizona, but were not as dangerous as forecasters had initially feared, the Associated Press reported.

Read More Show Less
A woman walks in front of her water-logged home in Sriwulan village, Sayung sub-district of Demak regency, Central Java, Indonesia on Feb. 2, 2018. Siswono Toyudho / Anadolu Agency /Getty Images

A new study has more than doubled the worst-case-scenario projection for sea level rise by the end of the century, BBC News reported Monday.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Matt Cardy / Stringer / Getty Images

The Guardian is changing the way it writes about environmental issues.

Read More Show Less
Blueberry yogurt bark. SEE D JAN / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD

Having nutritious snacks to eat during the workday can help you stay energized and productive.

Read More Show Less
A 2017 flood in Elk Grove, California. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

By Tara Lohan

It's been the wettest 12 months on record in the continental United States. Parts of the High Plains and Midwest are still reeling from deadly, destructive and expensive spring floods — some of which have lasted for three months.

Mounting bills from natural disasters like these have prompted renewed calls to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, which is managed by Federal Emergency Management Agency and is now $20 billion in debt.

Read More Show Less