Desperation and an utter sense of Impotence.
Those are the common denominators for state-based Puerto Ricans (the Diaspora) after Hurricane María wreaked havoc through our beloved archipelago.
The desperation of not being able to contact our relatives and friends in Puerto Rico. The desperation of not knowing of their fates.
And that sense of crippling impotence that comes from not knowing how can we best help our loved ones and the whole island. Yes, the whole island because in times like these, Puerto Ricans have been known to come together as one regardless of class difference, racial animosity, political tendencies and geographical distance.
And this time is not different.
Leaders from traditional centers of the Puerto Rican diaspora have already stated their intention to help with the search, rescue, and relief efforts. Federal agencies and the military are on the ground restoring communications. But it will take more than that for Puerto Rico to get back on its feet.
Hurricane María punished Puerto Rico like no other natural disaster has since at least 1928, when Hurricane San Felipe crippled the island. For what I have seen and heard, when the total loss is tallied, María will break this mark as well. Maria is a natural catastrophe of such magnitude that is has created a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico which will only get worse in the coming weeks.
María could’ve not punished Puerto Rico at a worse moment. The Puerto Rican debt and financial crises that triggered an exodus to U.S. mainland, and the austerity measures of the Washington-imposed fiscal board, left Puerto Rico in a precarious position to deal with the reconstruction effort.
As of today, much of the island remains without communications. Entire towns are isolated, which has brought much sorrow and incertitude to stateside Puerto Rican communities. The majority of stateside Puerto Ricans have relatives and friends in the archipelago and is willing and ready to help. However, I noticed an interesting trend while listening to Zello and engaging in social media during the media blackout.
First, the Zello channels and Facebook pages are being created from the States. That is understandable, as the island lost all communications early during the hurricane. Second, it seems for the most part, recently arrived Puerto Ricans in the continental U.S. who are leading the effort of creating Zello channels, WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages. They are volunteering their time and ingenuity to compile information and bring some solace to those who don’t have any news of their loved ones.
The calls are heartbreaking. The desperation is palpable. Some get upset, others breakdown and can barely talk.
I have been in Utah for eleven months, my mom is in El Maní with my brother and my nephews and nieces visiting abuela, and today I was at work trying not to cry until I found your group [Zello Huracán María PR Mayagüez]”
Mami, take it easy. We understand. I’m in New Jersey, and like you, I haven’t heard from my mom.
And so went too many calls to count or keep track of them.
The creators and administrators of that particular Zello channel and Facebook group, Francheska Walter Castellano, Iliana Gonzalez Del Valle, Nicole J Torres Vigo and Stephanie Torres (and many other members whose names I can’t recall) took on the task of not only gathering information but to offer a little comfort to callers in their same position.
The calls kept coming and many asked, “Please can you tell me anything about X sector, Y person, Z town?” They tried to accommodate callers asking for other towns, but it was hard enough to deal with calls asking about Mayagüez so they started to recommend people to form Tello channels for their respective towns. Now it seems there is a channel for every single town. A caller with family in the adjacent town of Añasco (where my mother, siblings, nephews and nieces remain unaccounted for) asked for guidance on how to manage her group. She received good feedback.
This group (Zello Huracán María PR Mayagüez) created a Facebook page that now has almost 7,000 members. The groups from the Diaspora keep forming—a people dispersed across the globe but united via social media and the selfless acts of volunteers. As communications failed, they filled the gap. I have seen Puerto Ricans doing these acts of pure goodwill before—during Hurricane Georges, now two decades ago. I have also seen them mobilized to help when calamities fell upon our Caribbean siblings.
As I wait to hear from my loved ones, and as my heart breaks thinking, “qué será de mi Borinquen?”, I too find solace and strength seeing my fellow Puerto Ricans behaving extraordinarily in the face of what may seem as insurmountable odds. Puerto Rico will rise once again, not in short measure due to the Boricuas’ generous spirit. And, I can’t thank enough those already on the ground and those uniting us through social media.
Harry Franqui-Rivera tweets from @hfranqui.