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Ohio Woman Tells Of 'Heartbreaking' Condition For Family In Puerto Rico

Jamie Vega Hamilton volunteered to collect supplies for Puerto Rico on September 22, 2017. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

After Hurricane Maria, Northeast Ohio’s Puerto Rican community mobilized to gather supplies, donations, and to support each other.  One of the volunteers I spoke with two weeks ago was Jamie Vega Hamilton, who still hadn’t heard from some family:

HAMILTON: “…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.”

I spoke with Hamilton again today, for an update on how she and her family are doing:

HAMILTON: “Yes, on Day Six we got word, not directly, but indirectly that my family had survived the storm.  It took several days to hear from everyone but at this point I know that my family is alive.”

GANZER: “So you had to go through friends of friends, or acquaintances, or just anybody who could get you close to where they are in Puerto Rico?”

HAMILTON: “Essentially it took having someone who had contact, someone who was able to get cell phone service, sending them over to my grandparents’ house and finding out if they’re okay. And then on the other side of my family it took Facebook. They finally found some internet service and just say ‘hey, we’re alive.’”

GANZER: “That must’ve been horrific in its own right, that you don’t even know if what you’re pursuing is going to get you the information.”

HAMILTON: “It’s a terrifying process, and it very much still is. What you feel is this mix of emotion: you know that they survived the storm, but then that same feeling of fear, of anxiety, it comes back, because now that you know they’re alive, but now to hear the circumstances that they’re living in, it’s pretty devastating.”

GANZER: “So what is next—obviously you want to hear directly from your family, but you also want to assess how bad they were hit by the storm, and what they have even left, if they have a home, if they have a town…”

HAMILTON: “My father spoke to my grandfather. 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. And that’s just very difficult to stomach, it’s the toughest man I know weeping and asking for help. And so at this point my family and I are trying to figure out a way to send my father to Puerto Rico. As you can imagine with the flight situation it’s very challenging, and then we live two hours away from the airport in Puerto Rico, so we don’t know how my father’s gonna get from the airport to my grandparents. We’re doing our part on this side, you know collecting, and fundraising, and all that, but then you hear it’s not getting to the people. It’s just heartbreaking.”

GANZER: “So you don’t think the response is enough?”

HAMILTON: “I question whether or not it’s getting to everyone.  I know my grandfather when we spoke to him was concerned about food, he was running out of food. Thankfully we’re in an area, one of the small pockets of Puerto Rico that does have running water, so that’s not as much of a concern, but the food is scarce. The day that my father spoke to my grandfather he had waited in line form 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. just to get $20 in gas so he can fire up his generator. So the thought of having a 90-year-old man standing—under those conditions—in a line, for that long, is just…and that’s the reality. That’s what they have to do every day. It’s just devastating.”

GANZER: “Well, I hope you can hear from your family directly soon, and hopefully the aid gets to those who need it. Jamie, thank you for sharing your story.’

HAMILTON: “Thank you so much for this opportunity.  The one message that I wanted to relay is to keep the fight going. This will be a struggle for the next week, for the next month, maybe even the next year, so I thank you for this opportunity, because it’s making other people aware of the situation in Puerto Rico.”

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.