Editorial: We should be offering help, not criticism, in wake of Hurricane Maria

  • Hampshire College Community Partnerships for Social Change Program Director Maria Cartagena speaks during a rally held at the college on Monday, Oct. 2, in Amherst to address the federal response to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Hurricane Maria’s devastation has left millions of Puerto Ricans without adequate access to food, water, electricity and shelter; relatives on the mainland, including many in Pioneer Valley, uncertain about the fate of loved ones; and a federal relief effort criticized for its too-little, too-late response.

Massive aid will be needed for months to help the island rebuild after it was leveled Sept. 20 by Maria’s catastrophic, 150-mph winds and 20 or more inches of rain. Eighty percent of Puerto Rico’s power transmission lines were knocked out, leaving virtually all 1.57 million customers without electricity. Because so many roads and other infrastructure were damaged, it has been difficult to distribute needed supplies, including fuel to run generators. “Make no mistake — this is a humanitarian disaster involving 3.4 million U.S. citizens,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said.

That was echoed at a rally Monday at Hampshire College, organized by faculty and staff who told personal stories about the impact of the hurricane and its aftermath. They urged all to get involved in humanitarian efforts and blasted President Donald Trump for racial stereotyping as he criticized Puerto Ricans’ response to the disaster.

Among those who spoke was Irisdelia Garcia, a senior at Amherst College who has relatives in Puerto Rico. “I’m reminded very single day of how resilient my people are. And how strong they are.” Still, Garcia said it has been emotionally wrenching. “To be Puerto Rican and a college student is exhausting. I have cried every single day for my family. For my island.”

Martin Espada, a poet and English professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, took aim at Trump: “Nero fiddles while Puerto Rico burns.” It took Federal Emergency Management Agency officials five days after Maria hit to arrive in Puerto Rico, and Trump did not visit the island until Tuesday, nearly two weeks after the hurricane’s landfall.

The president, during a weekend stay at his New Jersey golf club, unleashed a Twitter-storm of criticism directed at Puerto Rican officials in general and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz in particular. “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,” Trump tweeted the day after Cruz had asked the president to “make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives. I am begging, begging anyone that can hear us, to save us from dying.”

Trump’s response: “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”

Espada, 60, who grew up in Brooklyn, said Monday that is typical of racist stereotypes about Puerto Ricans held by New Yorkers of Trump’s generation. “That was a stereotype I also grew up with that impacted me directly,” Espada added. “When he said those words … I knew exactly where they came from.”

We hope that Trump returns from viewing the disaster with a resolve to step up the federal response, including adequate military personnel and supplies and a long-term aid package.

Community groups already are working hard on relief efforts in states like Massachusetts, which has the fifth largest Puerto Rican community on the mainland. About one-third of the state’s Puerto Ricans are concentrated in Holyoke and Springfield.

Nueva Esperanza, at 401 Main St. in Holyoke, is a donation center for Western Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico, a coalition of local political, religious, nonprofit, business and community leaders. In its warehouse are items that will be sent to Puerto Rico, including water, batteries, first aid supplies, flashlights, canned food and water-purifying tablets.

Maria Cartagena, president of the board for Nueva Esperanza, urged anyone interested in volunteering to visit the Holyoke agency: “All hands need to be on deck.”

Words to heed, because that is what Americans do to help victims of a disaster.

These organizations are among others contributing to relief efforts: Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico (www.tbf.org/puertorico), for reconstruction and economic recovery projects and resettlement efforts of Puerto Ricans across the state; United for Puerto Rico (prfaa.pr.gov/unitedforpuertorico/), a charitable organization working with the private sector in Puerto Rico; Hispanic Federation (hispanicfederation.org/unidos/), whose Unidos Disaster Relief Fund is supporting victims of the hurricane in Puerto Rico and earthquake in Mexico City; and American Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org/about-us/our-work/disaster-relief/hurricane-relief/hurricane-maria-relief-information#Domestic-Response).