One Philly family's struggles to help relatives in hurricane-battered Puerto Rico

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Diana Rodriguez Wallach, during a previous visit to Puerto Ricio, with her cousin, Ventura Batista, in Utuado.

 

It is possible to appreciate the hurricane relief efforts of first responders and the military while also recognizing that it is not enough. That is what my family and I have learned these past two weeks while trying to contact and send aid to our relatives in Puerto Rico.

Since Hurricane Maria, the Rodriguez family of Philadelphia has had to become its own pack of Avengers determined to help our cousins, aunts, and uncles on the island where our father was born.

We’ve had some success. We were able to get supplies to our visually impaired and diabetic cousin in San Juan. It took five days to accomplish this, and Ventura only lives 10 miles from the airport. We tried every possible government connection we had after the storm, but ultimately help came from our personal network.

A colleague of mine at my alma mater, Boston University, called an alum who knew an alum who lived in San Juan and was able to take food and water from her own supplies. It was enough to last one day. Thankfully that same week, a colleague from Philadelphia boarded a plane to Puerto Rico to aid recovery efforts any way he could. He hand-delivered a suitcase full of supplies to our cousin, including food, a water-purification system, and much-needed medication.

This is our “good news story,” but so far it’s our only one. Our relatives in the mountain town of Utuado, where my dad, Lou Rodriguez Sr., was born, have yet to make contact. Judging by news coverage, for water they are relying on a pipe tapped into an unfiltered spring, which isn’t exactly “good news” to us.

We’ve spoken to many nonprofit leaders and city government officials, asking one question, Is anyone working to get aid to the most devastated and desolate parts in the interior of the island? The answer: Not yet.

One group said it could send us as volunteers to work on the island, but they couldn’t guarantee they’d help us get to Utuado. Another group said it was likely the mountain towns wouldn’t receive help until at least Nov. 1, while another suggested that they couldn’t send aid to Utuado unless someone there “officially requested it.” This left us wondering how we, private citizens, could contact the mayor of Utuado, so we could ask him to request aid and we could have one of these agencies send it to him.

Clearly, we’ve thought of going there and delivering supplies ourselves. But with gas being limited and the town being two hours from San Juan, we worry about the safety of our journey and our supplies. We’re not ex-military. I write young adult novels. My brother Lou Rodriguez Jr., runs an engineering firm in Philadelphia, Rodriguez Consulting. And my sister Natalie Rodriguez Jansorn runs scholarship programs for students with financial need through the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

As far as we know, we’re the only team in Philadelphia solely focused on taking relief to people in Puerto Rico’s poor mountain community, and that fact alone is evidence that our government is not doing enough.

If it was your family drinking dirty river water and surviving without food, electricity, or any communication, I don’t think it would be enough for you either. Rather than patting themselves on the back, we hope to see government leaders working together, with determined and coordinated focus, to save these American lives, not just in San Juan, but the entire island.

It is our mission, and we believe it is also the mission of our first responders and the military. But is it Washington’s mission?

Diana Rodriguez Wallach is the author of two young adult trilogies, including the recent “Proof of Lies.” Contact her via  www.dianarodriguezwallach.com.