Philly Puerto Rican community mobilizes to generate Hurricane aid

Adonis Benegas and Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez prior to Wednesday’s press conference.

Instead of celebrating the annual Puerto Rican Week, many in Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican community were holding their breath Wednesday, as Hurricane Maria barreled through the island, knocking out power and cutting off contact.

With as many as 15,000 participating in the week’s festivities, culminating Sunday on the Ben Franklin Parkway with the Puerto Rican Parade, organizations in the city’s Latin American community said Wednesday that they would be using the week’s celebrations to raise money and help those in Maria’s path.

“Right now, the effort is solely on monetary contributions because we have no way and no capacity to know when we will be able to transport any goods to Puerto Rico,” said City Councilwoman Maria Quinoñes-Sánchez.

As the historic storm was making landfall, representatives from organizations renewed their talks that first began a few weeks ago, as Hurricane Irma was preparing to deliver what ultimately ended up being $1 billion worth of damage to the island.

The effort by the group, which calls itself Unidos PA’ Puerto Rico, includes a social-media campaign, a website campaign, and volunteers walking around Sunday’s parade seeking donations, according to Adonis Benegas, executive director of the nonprofit Concilio. At a later date, there will be a call for volunteers who can travel to Puerto Rico and help alongside the Salvation Army.

Wednesday’s news conference was largely centered on plans to rein in excessive post-parade celebrations. An official announcement of the fund-raising efforts is planned for Thursday.

Those with family on the island, Quinoñes-Sánchez said, are on edge. That includes her own. She said she hadn’t been able to make contact with any of her hundreds of relatives there since early Wednesday morning.

“My neighbors in Fajardo who were nice enough to cover my house, I have not been able to communicate with them in the last two days,” Quinoñes-Sánchez said.

The city’s Puerto Rican population numbers over 121,000, according to 2010 census data, up 46 percent since 2000. Of those in that population with family on the island, social media has been key for connecting and sharing information, said Amaris Hernandez, a spokesperson for Taller Puertorriqueño, a Puerto Rican arts and culture organization taking part in Unidas Para Puerto Rico.

“Just all morning, there’s been videos from people on the island … people talking about their towns and what communities their families are in and that they can’t contact them,” Hernandez said. “Some people saying that their families are OK.”

Benegas explained that much of Concilio’s role has been providing simple reassurance, particularly to the large concentration of Puerto Ricans in North Philadelphia. “We’re just encouraging them to keep trying and stay close to the news and following up with their family as best they can,” he said.