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A Year After Maria, Aid Organizer Wants Ohioans Not To Forget Puerto Rico

Aid efforts underway at the San Lorenzo Club on September 22, 2017. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

A year ago today Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, devastating the already fragile infrastructure of the island, and, according to researchers, led to some 3,000 deaths.

Northeast Ohio’s robust Puerto Rican community mobilized in the days after the storm, gathering aid at the west side Cleveland San Lorenzo Club.

Angelo Ortiz helped organize the effort at the time.

“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,” he said in the early days of the supply effort. “Half of the cities in Puerto Rico you just can’t get communication, everything is down.”

Even when families finally reached loved ones on the island, news of the material and psychological damage sent further shockwaves.

Jamie Vega Hamilton’s 90-year-old grandfather survived the storm, but the conditions were dire.

“My grandfather who served in the army in the 50s, the proudest American you’d ever meet, he wept on the phone and begged for help,” Vega Hamilton said two weeks after the storm. “That’s just very difficult to stomach.”

The community stayed mobilized, ultimately gathering hundreds of thousands of pounds of aid. 

But there wasn’t a way to get it to the island. There wasn’t an agreement with FEMA, or with the Red Cross.

For a time community members considered using a moving company.

A month after Maria, MetroHealth and the Feeding America network of foodbanks announced a plan to get the 450 pallets of goods out of the IX Center.

Margie Colon, a MetroHealth employee, helped organize.

“What I saw as a Hispanic born in Puerto Rico, what I saw was unity, not just among our race, but among all races. And I think that’s what affected me the most,” Colon said at a press conference announcing the arrangement.

Colon acted as a logistics point person, traveling to Puerto Rico to find a way to make sure Ohio aid would go where it was needed.

“I had bought a one-way ticket for myself, and then my husband said, ‘no, that’s not going to happen,’” Colon said remembering that time.

She said hospitals and churches could act as partners for aid delivery. Her employer MetroHealth was the hospital, so she looked for a partner on the island.

“We started knocking on doors trying to get merchandise in there, with the mayor of San Juan, and that didn’t work out. And then finally one day I just went to church. The preacher, he says, ‘give me water, so I will thirst no more.’ And that triggered something in me, and I knew that was the church,” she said. 

Colon stayed active in the process even after the aid left the IX Center, and arrived in Puerto Rico. She described the distribution process as being almost like a tailgating party. Community members all pitched in to get aid to people in the hills just as in the city.

But those once lush and green hills of her beautiful island seemed gray, devastated by Maria.

“I’m still affected by it,” she said, with emotion in her eyes. “I don’t want people to forget. Devastation is something that sometimes we can forget, like 9/11, like right now what’s going on with this other hurricane. Even when the [death toll] came out, and they said these were the numbers, I knew that wasn’t so,” she said. “If you would’ve seen what I’d seen there’s no possible way that would be the number.”

Colon believes that the devastation in Puerto Rico and continued problems after it, have taught Puerto Ricans that they can’t wait for someone to rescue them.

“We can’t wait for somebody to come and save us, we’re going to have to start doing this ourselves,” she said.

Colon would run for office if she ever moves back to Puerto Rico, seemingly spurred by the challenges. She admits a younger generation of Puerto Ricans, not born on the island, have a different mindset about returning to Puerto Rico, and being motivated to rebuild.

But Colon believes enough Puerto Ricans and fellow Americans will return to do what needs to be done on the island.

“Just as much as [catastrophe] happened to me, it can happen to you. And if it does, and you ask me, I’ll be there for you,” Colon said. “I think I just want to continue on fighting, and helping to rebuild it. And if it takes one hammer at a time, then let it be: one hammer at a time.”

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.