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Connecticut officials respond with aid and calls for assistance to powerless Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico Tropical Weather
Stephanie Rojas
/
AP
A worker cuts an electricity pole that was downed by Hurricane Fiona as it blocks a road in Cayey, Puerto Rico, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022.

Hurricane Fiona unleashed more rain on Puerto Rico on Monday, a day after the storm knocked out power and water to most of the island, and National Guard troops rescued hundreds of people who got stranded.

The governor warned that it could take days to get the lights back on.

The blow from Fiona was made more devastating because Puerto Rico has yet to recover from Hurricane Maria, which killed nearly 3,000 people and destroyed the power grid in 2017. Five years later, more than 3,000 homes on the island are still covered by blue tarps.

In Connecticut, local politicians and aid organizations called for assistance to the island, where officials said National Guard troops have rescued more than 900 people.

“Last time Puerto Rico experienced this kind of natural disaster, our country failed to respond,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. “We need to remember, our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico deserve the same kinds of all-in, all-hands-on-deck response.”

In 2019, Connecticut was home to the sixth-largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the United States, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

Blumenthal said he plans to formally request aid this week in Washington, D.C.

He said one pressing issue is making sure the electrical grid in Puerto Rico is resilient in the weeks and months to come. The island’s private electricity provider, LUMA Energy, said it could take several days until power is restored across the island.

Authorities reported one death from the hurricane by Monday afternoon — a man swept away by a flooded river in the inland town of Comerio.

Puerto Rico officials said it was too early to know the full scope of damage. Another death was associated with the blackout — a 70-year-old man who was burned to death after he tried to fill his generator with gasoline while it was running, officials said.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declined to say how long it would take to fully restore electricity, but he said for most customers it would be “a question of days.”

Using lessons learned from Maria, locals stand by to help potential Fiona evacuees 

Nonprofit organizations here in Connecticut are using what they learned after Hurricane Maria in 2017 to prepare for the possible fallout.

“When Hurricane Maria happened, we ended up with, I think, five or six agencies in a one-stop place. So families would come and talk to the Salvation Army, the library, 211. Every day we would get a new partner,” said Aura Alvarado of the Capitol Region Education Center in Hartford, who co-led a Maria relief center in Hartford.

It’s possible that people with ties to Connecticut may evacuate here, like many did after Hurricane Maria. CREC is closely monitoring the situation in the Caribbean, waiting for any signs that they might be needed to help with a response in Hartford. Alvarado said that this time, local nonprofits are more prepared.

“Little by little, we figured it out … I know in my heart that there would be agencies like CREC that would step up and help,” Alvarado said.

But the building that these nonprofits repurposed for evacuees in 2017 may not be available this time. Alvarado said the facility used in 2017 was just rented for another purpose, and she’s not sure where evacuees would stay if they needed to escape to Connecticut after this storm.

“I know there’s a lot of empty buildings,” Alvarado said. “Someone would have to step up and say, ‘This is important, here’s a space, who wants to be part of this?’”

Connecticut-based Americares says it is responding with aid for survivors

Americares said in a statement Monday it was mobilizing a team based in San Juan to deliver medicine and relief supplies to hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico. The Stamford-based nonprofit said it will also provide emergency funding to help repair damaged health centers.

“Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico almost exactly five years to the day that Hurricane Maria devastated the island,” Dr. Brenda Rivera-García, senior director of Latin America and Caribbean Programs at Americares, said in a statement. “We anticipate that there will be an urgent need to replace medication and medical supplies damaged due to the flooding and power outages, and we also know that survivors will need mental health support as they navigate this crisis and the anniversary of Maria, which is likely to bring back painful memories.”

This story contains information from the Associated Press.

Updated: September 19, 2022 at 5:04 PM EDT
This story has been updated.
Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.