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Cleveland's Puerto Rican Community Mobilizes After Hurricane Maria

Community members collect and pack supplies bound for Puerto Rico (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

Puerto Rico is still trying to get a handle on all that has happened, and needs to be done following Hurricane Maria.  Friends and relatives in Northeast Ohio’s Puerto Rican community are still waiting to hear from the island. 

On Cleveland’s west side today, community members gathered supplies at the San Lorenzo Club, to send to the island.

HAMILTON: “My name is Jamie Vega Hamilton.  I was at work, and couldn’t focus, and so I decided to leave and see if there was anything I could do to be proactive.”

GANZER: “You still have family in Puerto Rico?”

HAMILTON: “Still have family in Puerto Rico that we have not heard anything…we don’t have any updates. The municipality…is completely severed, in terms of communication and you can’t leave or come into the municipality. So it’s a very dire and desperate situation.”

Jamie Vega Hamilton says she couldn't focus at work out of worry, so she joined the aid effort. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

GANZER: “I know it’s hard to be optimistic at all—we’ve heard some friends are contacting cities which have been cut off.  Are you using all these routes to try to get word?”

HAMILTON: “Yes, there’s an app called Zello and it’s kind of like a radio, walkie talkie so I can hear voices.  Unfortunately it’s a lot of us from this side, trying to get in contact with people, but you know they are and we are trying to stay strong and optimistic.  And as you can see here today people are pulling together and we have faith that’s the scenario playing out in Puerto Rico as well.”

GANZER: “And anything else you think people should know about what you’re going through?”

HAMILTON: “You know, to keep us in thoughts and prayers, we need the positive energy flowing.  Whatever you can do to help is very appreciated.”

Volunteers unloaded cars pulling in near the San Lorenzo Club with bottled water, canned goods, diapers, baby formula, whatever people back on the island might need.

Angelo Ortiz helped organize the effort.

ORTIZ: “It’s been an amazing time, really, hard for them out there, hard for people here, too, because we haven’t been able to get in contact with half of the people that we know.  Half of the cities in Puerto Rico you just can’t get communication, everything is down. 90% of the island is done for.”

GANZER: “You have family back in Puerto Rico?”

ORTIZ: “Yes, I got in contact with everybody except two cities...that’s where the eye of the hurricane came in, and it’s a lot of devastation down there.  We’re calling other people so other people can go to them, like I got in contact with my sister-in-law, got in contact with her father, through a friend in the city, so they went up there made sure they were okay, came back, let them know they were okay. So that’s how they’re doing it, because the roads are nothing but trees, poles, mudslides, the roads are very, very bad.”

Angelo Ortiz helped organize the aid effort. (Tony Ganzer/ideastream)

GANZER: “This is especially tough—it seems like people paid attention to Puerto Rico during the debt crisis and everything, and now there’s this devastation, and you hope aid gets there quick, and people are paying attention.  Are you optimistic, or hope that things are kicked up a notch?”

ORTIZ: “Well, to tell you the truth, Mother Nature knows what she does.  It’s a blessing in disguise. The unity that we needed in Puerto Rico is there now, because when catastrophes like this hit we don’t look other ways. We take care of our own, and we help each other. Financially the island was in debt big time.  Hopefully with this we take the debt away, we restart.  We belong to you, United States. So it’s time to get the help we need here, and let’s restore Puerto Rico like it used to be. It’s gonna take a long time but we have to start now.”

Even with patchy information from Puerto Rico, many in Northeast Ohio seem cautiously optimistic and talk proudly about the community’s resilience. 

Jose Acevedo is the president of the San Lorenzo Club.

ACEVEDO: “We believe a lot, we believe in God, we believe…five, ten years from now it will be like nothing happened.  I’m pretty sure it will be like that, because people have the heart to start over again, and they will, they will, they will.”

The volunteers here will continue gathering supplies here until Monday, when they’ll be loaded onto trucks, and head to Puerto Rico and those who desperately need them.


Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.