After disasters, New York goes into overdrive in gathering aid

'It brought community together in a way I have not experienced'
Volunteers sort food supplies destined for people affected by Hurricane Maria's strike in Puerto Rico and Mexico's earthquakes.
Volunteers sort food supplies destined for people affected by Hurricane Maria's strike in Puerto Rico and Mexico's earthquakes.

NEW YORK — The sidewalks of Sunset Park, in Brooklyn, were overflowing with bottled water and boxes of donations on Tuesday, most bound for Puerto Rico, others to Mexico. At an East Harlem fundraiser, Puerto Rican poets shouted their verses above the thunderous roar of the Metro-North Railroad trains.

New York is in aid overdrive after hurricanes and earthquakes struck the homelands of two of its largest Spanish-speaking populations, Puerto Rico and Mexico.

As the devastation of Puerto Rico, in particular, has become clear, and amid criticism of the Trump administration for what some say is a slow response to the island’s crisis, anxious New Yorkers have been stepping up.

“I’ve been a community organizer for 20 years and I can tell you, the outpouring of support is overwhelming, it brought community together in a way I have not experienced,” said Eddie Santiago, 53, who was loading boxes of supplies in Sunset Park. For those with family members in Puerto Rico, he added, “this allows us to keep our sanity and our spirits high.”

Christina Torres, 32, wearing a Puerto Rican flag bandanna tied around a belt loop, has not been able to reach her 63-year-old mother in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria hit more than a week ago. Her mother has diabetes and asthma. “I’m all worked up, but this is my healing process,” said Torres as she packed cereal boxes to send over.

The enthusiastic response has united Haitian activists, Colombian singers, Puerto Rican salsa bands, Chinese warehouse owners, New York police officers, Jennifer Lopez, a local Lions Club, a mosque and a Mexican entertainment mogul, to name a few. Upcoming New York fundraisers include a rodeo, a 5K running race and a night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo run separate (if not competing) aid campaigns for Puerto Rico, volunteers wonder how soon this help can reach the island. The San Juan airport was damaged in the storm and only a few flights have been able to get in and out.

The Sunset Park Disaster Relief Collection Center was organized by New York Assemblyman Félix W. Ortiz, a Democrat, whose district office is nearby. In the neighborhood, Mexican and Chinese immigrants and longtime Puerto Rican residents work together to pack supplies.

Ortiz explained that aid efforts began soon after the first natural disaster, Hurricane Harvey, barreled into Texas in late August, and intensified when the first earthquake hit Mexico and Guatemala, followed by Hurricane Irma deluging the Caribbean and Florida. A little more than a week ago, the second Mexico earthquake struck and Hurricane Maria unloaded on Puerto Rico. Volunteers work at the collection center 12 hours a day.

“I’ve been working for three weeks straight,” said Hector Gonzalez, 68, from Puerto Rico who runs street festivals. He served in Vietnam, so, he added, “as a veteran, I am ready.”

Over the weekend, residents in the formed a human chain as they passed thousands of pounds of donated items from the collection center to St. Andrews Episcopal Church across the street, where the items would be temporarily stored. The Muslim Community Center on 53rd Street and a warehouse in Dyker Heights owned by Chinese immigrants were storing supplies, too.

Deputy Inspector Emmanuel Gonzalez Jr., of the 72nd Precinct called a dozen of his officers to help. Gonzalez, who is part of the National Latino Officers Association of America, said he was inspired by an emotional message from a retired New York police officer living in San Germán, a city in southwest Puerto Rico. In a voicemail message, she begged for generators, water, gas and radios, any way to communicate that they were safe to relatives in the United States.

On Tuesday, Gonzalez and his officers were back at the church, moving cartons of bottled water to the street to be taken to a warehouse on 39th Street.

Ivan Rodriguez, 48, a Sunset Park volunteer, born in Puerto Rico, was lending his sweat equity. “New Yorkers know that when we need to support other countries, we’re No. 1,” he said with a grin.

Earlier in the week, Manuel Guerrero, a board member of Mecenas, a Mexican cultural organization, had dropped off empty boxes and pallets supplied by a Williamsburg tortilla factory. Mecenas was founded by the Mexican-American businessman Pedro Zamora, who owns La Boom nightclub in Queens. Last week marked the start of four benefit concerts at the club; any items that organizers could not send to Mexico, such as clothes, were packaged to be sent to Puerto Rico.

“It’s time to help two countries,” Zamora said. “You just wish you didn’t have to do it.”

But this has been his default response. He organized a benefit concert with Mexican bands in 2010 for Haiti’s earthquake relief, which the president of the nonprofit Reviving Haiti, Joseph Dorismond, remembered with gratitude. Last week, Reviving Haiti redirected medical supplies bound for still-suffering Haiti to Mexican earthquake victims instead.

“This is the right thing to do,” Dorismond said.

But Guerrero cautioned that physical donations may be inefficient. The airline Aeroméxico, he said, has provided space in cargo holds, but that more carriers are needed for the goods piling up on pallets.

“Our next campaign will be to raise funds to buy temporary homes in Mexico,” Guerrero said.

In the Puerto Rican enclave of East Harlem, a few hundred local artists, poets, students and neighbors attended a poetry slam held by Barrio Poetix at La Marqueta underneath the Metro-North train tracks. The suggested donation was $10, and there were raffle tickets, food and paintings for sale to benefit hurricane relief for both Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

The spoken and whispered words were about Puerto Rico. People cried and commiserated over their worries of loved ones; and they criticized the Trump administration for what they saw as a slow response to a humanitarian crisis.

“There are people in the center of the island with no gas, no water,” said John Carlos Rosario, 25, a Puerto Rican student at the City University of New York. He finally was able to contact his girlfriend in Puerto Rico after six days, only to find out that she was also out of cash. She went to three towns, and no banks had cash. “We need rescue, we need help,” he said.

“People are desperate,” said his friend, Lorena Franco, 23, a Puerto Rican who is an economist in New York. “It’s a real problem, and we’re not sure it’s being communicated in the way it should be.”

Standing by the side of the stage with the sun setting above the railroad tracks and bongo drums beating out a defiant rhythm, Rosario said he felt buoyed by the communal support on the mainland.

“It gives me a little bit of hope,” he said.

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