Opinion

New Yorkers are crucial to helping Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria

Photo by Spc. Agustin Montanez

Like many New Yorkers, my husband Dan and I have a special connection to Puerto Rico. We got engaged there and return often to enjoy the island, its loving people and its beautiful spirit.

And so, like many New Yorkers, we felt we had to do something when Hurricane Maria hit. We organized a benefit the week of the storm – and, of course, New York stepped up. With the help of folks like MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, actor James Franco and philanthropist Agnes Gund, we gathered more than 1,000 people and raised a few hundred thousand dollars. Then Dan and I packed donated supplies in to suitcases and headed south to our beloved la Isla Del Encanto to volunteer.

As our flight began its descent into San Juan, I was filled with a sense of nervous dread. I expected to be heartbroken by what we saw when we arrived – and I was. But I also felt something I didn’t expect: pride. Because New Yorkers were everywhere, helping.

In San Juan I saw hardworking New Yorkers volunteering their personal time for no other reason than they felt compelled to help. Members of the building trades and organized labor went to the island immediately after Maria hit, getting communities back on their feet. In one instance, I saw New Yorkers from the Operating Engineers Local 14 working deep into the night to construct new water filtration systems. At a time when more than half the island is still without water, that work no doubt saved lives.

More than 150 New York City employees are on the island, and the mayor has set up an emergency operations center to coordinate a massive response. The Department of Buildings, the Office of Emergency Management, Department of Housing Preservation and Development and NYC Parks are joined on the ground by FDNY, NYPD and other New York City first responders. 

New Yorkers are always quick to respond to disaster. But this time it’s for our brothers and sisters. More than 1 million members of the Puerto Rican diaspora live in New York City, and thousands of New Yorkers call Puerto Rico home. In the end, we are all part of the same city.

In the San Juan neighborhood of Venezuela, I met Miguel, who was born in my home borough of Queens, and his mother, Tatiana. Miguel and Tatiana moved to Puerto Rico to care for her ailing grandmother. They decided to stay. Tatiana is now unsure if they will stay in San Juan or move to the mainland. But both she and her son remained remarkably upbeat, organizing support for her neighbors and fighting hard.

We have to continue to help them. The conditions in Puerto Rico are dire. As of today, half of the island is still without potable drinking water and almost 85 percent are without electricity. In the island’s more remote and rural areas, relief and supplies are slow to arrive and are never as plentiful as they need to be. Having no electricity, water, food or a roof over one’s head is beyond challenging; it is a humanitarian crisis.

Despite this, Puerto Rico is unbroken. Not even the unacceptable response by our federal government and the bizarre behavior of our president have stifled the fierce bravery of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and her constituents, who soldier on through unimaginable difficulty, because that’s what they do in Puerto Rico.

It’s also what we do in New York. And amid all the destruction, grief and loss I saw last week, I also saw hope and heroes. I remembered how when a crisis hits, we New Yorkers don’t flinch. Storms may batter us; Washington may fail us. But we always win when a common cause unites us.

We must do more to help Puerto Rico. The response will take months of sustained effort. But let’s also not forget we can focus this energy and intensity whenever we want. We can fight foes whatever and whoever they are – with our hands, with our hard-earned dollars and with our voices. That’s something we should all remember when the next challenge comes: New York is borderless and we can do anything together.

New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer represents Queens.

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