Central Florida organizations discuss aid for Puerto Rico amid fifth anniversary of Hurricane María – Orlando Sentinel

With the five-year anniversary of Hurricane María’s devastation of Puerto Rico on Tuesday and Hurricane Fiona’s impact on the island Saturday, Central Florida organizations mobilized to acquire aid for Puerto Rico.

During an hour-long call Monday, local and state leaders, several social organizations and others discussed efforts to once again help Puerto Rico, if it is needed, after Hurricane Fiona’s damaging winds and rain.

The meeting of more than 60 people via video conferencing and in person precedes a planned Hurricane Maria memorial 7 p.m. on Wednesday at Episcopal Churches of Christ the King and Jesus de Nazaret in Azalea Park. María, which slammed in the island nation Sept. 20, 2017, reportedly killed 3,000 people and displaced some 200,000. Now the ceremony will recognize the damage and death caused by Fiona on Sunday.

The call emphasized the importance of waiting to see where the resources are needed before action is taken, different than the initial Hurricane María response when aid was often not able to reach those most in need.

“There are partisan offices, nonpartisan offices; there are Republicans, Democrats, all levels of government coming together as a community, coming together with community organizations,” said the Rev. José Rodríguez of the Episcopal church who led the community call Monday. “When you unite the Hispanic community with the Black community you build a bridge that unites all communities, not just advocating for Puerto Rico but advocating for the entire impacted Caribbean.”

Hurricane Fiona pummeled the Dominican Republic Monday and is expected to impact other nearby islands.

Rodríguez, who is the 2020 Sentinel Central Floridian of the Year, said his main goal is to listen and wait for needs and damage assessments from leaders in Puerto Rico. He asked Central Floridians to donate money to organizations that they already know to help Puerto Rico.

Rodríguez doesn’t believe Fiona will result in the same level of Puerto Rican’s leaving the island.

“We’d be naïve to say that a disturbance like this wouldn’t cause displacement,” he said. “I sure hope not but if it occurs we are ready .”

Puerto Rico Research Hub at the University of Central Florida Founding Director Fernando Rivera said the communications infrastructure on the U.S. territory seems to be working, already a big change from Maria. The hub is a partner who joined the discussion Monday about aid for the island.

Rivera said he was able to check on his family members immediately after the storm passed, which highlights some of the infrastructure put in place since Maria that make this hurricane response different.

“This will result in more research and getting ready to research the possible influx of people coming here,” Rivera said. “Some of the research we started to embark upon before Fiona was the lack of doctors on the island so I don’t know how the health care system is going to respond now.”

Marucci Guzmán, Latino Leadership executive director, the organizer of a photography display at the Orlando Public Library Saturday to commemorate the five years since Maria said the backdrop of the event was Puerto Ricans bracing for Fiona’s impact.

After Maria, Guzman said her organization took supplies to the island and helped set up the Puerto Rico Family Response Center with the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which served 11,000 families.

“We’re ready to do the same this time,” Guzman said. “We don’t know what it looks like yet, you know, we are on stand by to help however we can.”

Jorge Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce in Kissimmee, said he has asked all 300 of his business members to donate to help Puerto Rico and contacted officials on the island to see how his organization could help.

“I called the mayor of Ponce Luis Irizarry Pabón and right now they are appraising the whole situation to find out the areas that are in the most need,” Figueroa said. “They are still trying to organize and trying to figure out how they are going to tackle the situation.”

Figueroa’s cousin in Caguas, Puerto Rico told him he saw some areas where streets have caved in after massive mudslides.

“It’s very sad, being the fifth anniversary of Maria and getting hit with another one. I think God is trying to tell us something,” Figueroa said. “In Puerto Rico, things have been very slow so I think this is a chance to do things better. It’s a wake up call.”

Maria Padilla, co-author of the book “Tossed to the Wind: Stories of Hurricane Maria Survivors,” went to the island one year after Maria and spoke to many survivors.

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“I was speaking to one of the people we interviewed in the book… she moved to Orlando and said just looking at this coverage she said it reminds me of what happened,” Padilla said. “People went through a tremendous amount of trauma with Hurricane Maria… because it took so long for them to dig out from under that debris and it took so long for the government to aid any resources.”

Padilla said her family and others on the island are better prepared because they know what to expect and learned from the last hurricane even though some of that is limited due to personal and governmental resources.

Padilla said the main lesson from interviewing many during Maria was that people learned they can’t wait for the government to fix everything.

Right now, partners are waiting for specific needs, Rodríguez said.

There are still needs in the Orlando area for packaged underwear, bras, socks, women’s sanitary items and diapers along with food.

The Healing Hunger Food Pantry hosted by the Episcopal Churches of Christ the King and Jess de Nazaret saw an increase from 100 to 200 families served each week after Hurricane Maria, Rodríguez said. The numbers never decreased even five years after the hurricane.

“We are not afraid but we are concerned and we are planning for a further increase in families we serve,” he said. “In order to do that, we need community assistance to be prepared.”

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