Bringing Hope and Healing to Puerto Rico

July 12, 2018

It’s close to 11 p.m. as my flight begins its descent into the San Juan, Puerto Rico, airport. The city lights aglow in the inky night look like one of those images on a picture postcard. It’s hard to believe it was just last September when an extremely angry Hurricane Maria slammed into the island and ripped out its power grid — which in some areas took months to repair.

Suddenly, black clouds scuttle past the plane’s windows, looking for all the world like the Dementors of “Harry Potter.”

It’s a metaphor that will bear out in the coming days, because it’s easy to be drawn in by the pristine white sand beaches steps from the tourist hotels at Isla Verde, the crystal blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the glittering cobblestones and candy-colored buildings of Old San Juan.

But travel a little farther into the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico, as I did, and you’ll discover the lost, forgotten communities still struggling to recover from the devastation that Maria wreaked.

Some of the island’s most desperate, indigent residents — many of them elderly and frail — live in these areas where homes have yet to be rebuilt, electricity and clean water are still scarce, and finding food, clothing and other basic necessities is a daily challenge.

Were it not for Jewish groups working hand-in-hand with local municipalities and other nonprofit, humanitarian agencies, the people in these areas would be in considerably worse states than they are now. They are hardy and resilient, but their plight is now seldom in headlines and the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States have all but forgotten them.

In the immediate aftermath of Maria, Chabad of Puerto Rico, in conjunction with a local nonprofit organization called PR4PR, leaped into action to help some of the poorest communities. At the same time, half a world away, IsraAID, the Israel-based humanitarian aid organization, started sending emergency response teams to some of the island’s hardest hit areas. Today, IsraAID is still there, working on long-term recovery efforts.

Chabad to the Rescue

Shortly after the hurricane hit on Sept. 20, Chabad of Puerto Rico Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, the organization’s emissary on the island for two decades, managed to hold Rosh Hashanah services, despite parts of his shul’s roof being ripped off and its sanctuary being flooded.

Together with volunteers, Zarchi waded through flooded streets to deliver both physical and spiritual aid to stranded residents. While the Chabad headquarters is located in the very touristy Isla Verde, the organization made a point of coordinating efforts to ensure those in the poorest neighborhoods received help.

The Chabad’s two-story, white structure sits on a narrow street, a short walk from the beach. It’s marble-tiled floors and dark-wood doors project an air of serenity. A gigantic, framed portrait of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, watches over those who come to pray, study or enjoy a kosher meal in the center’s tiny café.

Construction of the Chabad building was completed two years ago, but had been 19 years in the making. It took a major battering during the hurricane, and if you look closely today, you can still see some of the damage.

The storage room upstairs is crammed with nonperishable foodstuffs, leaving only narrow passageways to walk through. Those passageways were where Zarchi, his wife Rachel, and seven other people rode out the hurricane, lying on blankets on the floor. 

On the ground floor, the large social hall is lined with long tables, and when I visited two small girls were playing in the corner. But it was in this room where “we ran our relief project, right after the storm,” Zarchi said. “The entire room was covered in pallets.”
Those pallets were stacked with nonperishable items from Goya Foods, the New Jersey-based Latino food company that has a large manufacturing and distribution center in Puerto Rico. Chabad organized deliveries of the food to the most needy and continued to work with Goya on distributing the much-needed supplies. 

“Goya doesn’t normally sell to individual vendors, but we had a local contact and they made their products available to us at a very reasonable price,” Zarchi said.

In Canovanas, the thick blanket of humidity mixes with the stench of utter defeat. Here, the hurricane looked like it had left just after breakfast that morning. Sad-eyed dogs, skin hanging off their ribs, flopped in the midday sun, seeking shelter and any morsel of food.

“We also got kosher certification from Hands on Tzedakah (HOT) in Florida. They were tremendous,” he added, crediting HOT’s President Ron Gallatin and its project coordinator, Summer Faerman. “Gallatin sponsored a sizable amount of Goya products — beans and vegetables and corn and chickpeas and sauces — anything you could think of.

“We also gave out gas cards to run the generators and there was just tremendous effort from across the spectrum from Jewish communities. They sent food and clothing, gift cards and water. The generosity was just beautiful.”

Zarchi also thanked the kosher Kayco company – the largest food distributors in the U.S for sending dozens of palettes of quality food products and water, as well as the Jewish Federation, for providing subsidies for hard-hit Jewish community families and the community at large.

For all the praise Zarchi heaps on others, Jewish community members (Chabad caters to about 75 Jewish families on the island) are just as quick to praise the rabbi and his wife.

Seventy-four-year-old Rhoda Ringelheim, who lives alone, was trapped in her 10th-floor apartment for 10 days after the hurricane. She had moved there just days before the storm hit, which meant Zarchi and others at Chabad did not have her new address and didn’t know her whereabouts. Once she managed to get out of her home, her first stop was the Chabad center.

“I was bear-hugged when I got there,” Ringelheim said. “They had a generator and electricity and water. They have a shower, so if you needed to take one you could. And they fed you if you came in. Chabad is a family and they really let you know that.”

Mely Revay, 58, who moved to Puerto Rico from Venezuela with her husband two years ago to join their son and daughter-in-law, managed to walk to Rosh Hashanah services at Chabad after the hurricane.

“It was sad to see all the damage and that only a few of us were able to get to the synagogue,” she said, “but we were happy to see each other even though there were towels on the floor during services. Rabbi Mendel was amazing. They started distributing supplies right away. It was incredible.”

Selwyn Rosen, who is 79, has lived in Puerto Rico for 51 years. Because of the hurricane, he missed High Holy Days services for the first time in his life — and that upset him.

PR4PR summer camps kids sing and dance at a retirement home in Trujillo Alto.

“We had three feet of water in our home and I was unable to leave the house for 10 days,” Rosen said. “It was very painful for me. But Chabad came to us right after the storm. God bless them. It was truly unbelievable. The rabbi and his wife and his son came down my street. They had to wade through the water, but they gave us drinking water, soups, food, chocolates and candies. And they gave us food to give to our neighbors.”

Rosen said he was most grateful for the coffee. “You know, when you have a disaster, you want coffee. It was like a war zone here.”

But Rosen said that what impressed him most was that Chabad volunteers went up into the mountains to provide residents there with generators and food.

“I could not praise them enough,” Rosen said. “I’ve known Rabbi Mendel for 20 years. He and his wife are the most truly unique, fantastic, dedicated, loving, caring human beings I’ve ever met. What they did for this community is unbelievable. Forget my religious affiliation. When it comes to disaster relief, God bless us all for having [Chabad].”

Go Tell It on the Mountains

Chabad’s ability to head out to some of the most remote, mountainous regions came about, in part, thanks to a unique partnership formed with a local nonprofit called PR4PR, founded in 2004 by New Jersey-based Orthodox Jew Henry Orlinsky.

Orlinsky used to run part of his real estate business out of Puerto Rico, and in 1990 he decided a Chabad was needed there. He contacted Chabad’s world headquarters in New York, which eventually sent Zarchi to the island territory.

“Rabbi Mendel and his wife are the most truly unique, fantastic, dedicated, loving, caring human beings I’ve ever met. What they did for this community is unbelievable. Forget my religious affiliation. When it comes to disaster relief, God bless us all for having [Chabad].” – Selwyn Rosen

“Within a short period of time, Chabad of Puerto Rico became the center of Jewish life in the Caribbean,” thanks to Zarchi and his wife being “warm, unique, intelligent educated people who have been embraced by everyone they come into contact with,” Orlinsky told the Journal via telephone from New Jersey.

Orlinsky said he also wanted to do more for Puerto Rico’s non-Jewish community and came up with the idea to launch PR4PR.

Heriberto Mauras and his wife, Mayu, at their home in Barrio Real

“The idea was to run summer camps and programming throughout the year in the blighted, dangerous neighborhoods of San Juan that have the highest crime rates,” he said. “We aim to break the cycle of crime and dependency and give these kids role models, from the police department and with volunteers.”

Today, PR4PR services some 2,000 children who might otherwise turn to drugs or criminal activity.

When Hurricane Maria hit, Orlinsky capitalized on his friendship with Zarchi and Chabad: “We saw an opportunity to work with these communities to take advantage of all these generous donations that were being sent to Chabad to help the island, and we led the way to go into remote communities to distribute food and water and essentials.”

PR4PR works in collaboration with Puerto Rico’s state police department as well as the San Juan police department’s athletic league in developing educational, cultural and recreational activities for youth. Orlinsky’s man on the ground is 60-year-old retired police officer Levid Ortiz, who has been with PR4PR since its inception and who served as my guide for a day.

The Land of Blue Tarps

Early one morning, Ortiz and fellow police officer Ricardo picked me up in their police van. The humidity was already thick as we headed away from the Metro tourist district to visit a home for the elderly in the municipality of Trujillo Alto, about 10 miles southeast of San Juan. Children from one of PR4PR’s summer camps were going to be there to sing and dance with the residents.

As we drove up to the area, Ortiz pointed out the blue tarps covering the roofs of dozens of homes.

“These are the tarps that FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] provided after the storm,” Ortiz said. “And 10 months later they’re still here. Nothing has been fixed.”

(Later, as we drove to more remote areas, the repeated sightings of blue tarps billowing in the wind signaled the continuing widespread needs of people forgotten by the Puerto Rico government and the U.S. government.)

At the home for the elderly, Zarchi and two rabbinical students here for the summer from the States, sang and danced with the kids and residents and helped distribute bags of food.

We then clambored back into the van and headed out to visit one of the summer camps. We soon arrived at an elementary school building that had seen better days, where 260 children from the ages of 5 to 16 were playing basketball, listening to music and playing video games.

Wisps of humid air rose like steam from a cauldron as the broiling sun beat down relentlessly on the asphalt, but the kids didn’t seem to care. Some held crumpled dollar bills in their sweat-soaked palms as they waited to buy candy from a makeshift kiosk. Many of the kids didn’t have money for a sweet treat, so I handed a $5 bill to the volunteers and told them to hand out candy to as many kids as they could.

“San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz has political aspirations. She was using the hurricane and she was using the people and she was using these crocodile tears.” – Rhoda Ringelheim

Some of the kids played basketball with Rabbi Zarchi and the rabbinical students, while others lined up along a wall for their free lunch of sandwiches and fruit. They were all laughing and chatting and were thrilled to have their photo taken with the visiting journalist.

For all the blue tarps and derelict buildings in Trujillo Alto, nothing could prepare me for what we saw as we drove another 10 miles east to Canovanas, another blighted area with a population of just under 8,000.

As we head into one of the poorest villages with close to 3,000 residents, the tarps multiplied like an airborne virus. But far worse were the remnants of buildings ripped from their foundations. Staircases of blown-away homes led to nowhere. Random washing machines sat behind chain-link fences where homes once stood. The thick blanket of humidity mixed with the stench of utter defeat.

Here, the hurricane looked like it had left just after breakfast that morning. Sad-eyed dogs, skin hanging off their ribs, flopped in the midday sun, seeking shelter and morsels of food at a local store where tables and chairs and large pallets of bottled water sat.

The reason this area was such a disaster, Ortiz said, was because “FEMA won’t come here. This is a poor community. [The residents] don’t have papers — titles for their homes — so they can’t prove they own their places and can’t get funds.”

A large generator truck sat just above the local store. “The community got together and everyone put in a penny so they could get a generator up here,” he said. “They just got power a few weeks ago.”

One of those residents, Yessinia Ortiz, is 33 and has lived in the village for 19 years. Her home was destroyed in the hurricane. She now lives in the store and helps coordinate all the relief efforts that come through, including the assistance from PR4PR.

Iris Rosario also lives in the area and helps coordinate relief activities. “We need everything,” she said. “We have elderly people without food and money. Their streets are broken down, the kids have nothing and the government doesn’t help. We still have people without water in their homes.”

On that day, an organization called Praying Pelican Missions was there with a group of 14 Connecticut high school students who had come to help with painting and rebuilding projects.

IsrAid’s slow sand, gravitational water filtration system in Barrio Real

After the group left, Ortiz scoffed. “It’s nice,” he said, “but people don’t understand. They say, ‘We’re bringing 30 kids here to help rebuild houses,’ but I tell them, ‘I don’t need 30 kids; I need five guys who know what they’re doing and how to build. Because if any kid gets injured, we can get fined.”

The Mayor of San Juan: Good for Puerto Rico?

We headed back into San Juan to visit a community center for the PR4PR kids, where a basketball court could no longer be used because the corrugated metal roof  had collapsed onto the court.

“The mayor [Carmen Yulin Cruz] says she’s a good lady and she can fight for her people,” Ortiz said, “but it’s not true. Yes, she works in San Juan, but she spends more time in the States on vacation.” He shook his head. “People aren’t happy with her. Everything with her is ‘promise, promise, promise,’ but she never fixes anything.”

It was a complaint echoed by all the locals I spoke with.

Yulin Cruz is under investigation by the FBI for corruption for allegedly slowing the delivery of supplies to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the hurricane.

“She destroyed San Juan,” Ringelheim said. “She didn’t start picking up the garbage from Hurricane Irma (two weeks before Maria hit), so that was stacked up 3 feet. And then all of a sudden, Maria came and the garbage was stacked up 8 or 9 feet.”

In the U.S., when people saw Yulin Cruz standing up to President Donald Trump and demanding help, Ringelheim said, “She has political aspirations. She was using the hurricane and she was using the people and she was using these crocodile tears.”

Rosen also didn’t mince words. “She is full of it,” he said. “She was disgusting. [The island] is in the throes of a $70 billion deficit. She expected the U.S. to give that money back. She is no damn good for this country. She is politicized and she should hide her head in disgrace.”

Et Tu, U.S. Government?

Beyond the harsh words for San Juan’s mayor, locals also damned with faint praise the efforts of the territory’s government and the U.S. government, but gave high marks to private U.S. companies and the volunteers who continued to come to the aid of the island.

“The U.S. government, as far as I’m concerned, is the biggest failure that ever existed, as far as hurricane response,” Ringelheim said. 

Rosen, who still rides his Harley-Davidson motorcycle every weekend up to the mountains with a local club, said he is also angry with the Puerto Rican government. “I see all those blue [tarps] when we go up to the country and it’s truly heartbreaking. I’m angry because the government knew [the hurricane] was coming and they didn’t do their job.”

Rosen, who lives in the San Juan suburb of Ocean Park, said,“Our area has been known to flood. We had seven huge pumps that could have been used to remove water but they didn’t work because they haven’t been fixed in years.”

As a result, he said, many homes were destroyed, people left and because of the flooding in the area, many of the abandoned homes were looted. “We only had our own roof finally put back up last week,” he said.

 Giancarlos Portalatin, my 30-something taxi driver from the airport to my hotel, said the slow recovery efforts were hampered by the Jones Act, which requires the transportation of goods between U.S. ports be carried out by ships built in the U.S. and operated primarily by Americans.

“The houses that survived the storm were mostly built out of concrete,” Portalatin said, “but other countries weren’t allowed to ship materials to us. How can we rebuild so we can [withstand] other hurricanes if other countries can’t bring us materials?”

President Trump waived the Jones Act on Sept. 28, but only for 10 days.

“We know we’re an island,” Ringelheim said, “but following laws like the Jones Act, if you can’t get supplies, how can you support the people? And Trump? He says, ‘We’re relieving you of the Jones Act, and now [we’re ending it].’ We’re in limbo. Trump forgets everybody exists because all that’s important to him is him.”

People had praise for Consolidated Edison, or Con-Edison, the New York energy company that sent its engineers to work on restoring the electrical grids.

“Those are the ones I give the most credit to,” Ringelheim said. “If it wasn’t for them, we still wouldn’t have electricity today. There are still people without electricity,” she added, noting that even she only had her power restored in December, and she lives in a major metropolitan area.

“It’s going to take 10 years to recover [from the hurricane], Ringelheim said. “They’re trying to rebuild our antiquated electric system, but what [the government] should have done was modernized it. We’re in hurricane season again and the same thing could happen tomorrow.”

The Death Toll

Although most news coverage of Puerto Rico faded a few months after the hurricane, the island territory was back in the news in early June when a Harvard University study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that close to 4,600 people died as a result of the storm, far beyond the government’s official toll of 64.

“It’s because a lot of people didn’t die during the hurricane itself,” Ortiz said. “You’ve seen the areas. There were lots of elderly people who died after the storm. They were in places where there was no electricity and no oxygen machines, so they died. It’s just so sad.”

“I think the government here was trying to keep the [official] numbers down because there would be major panic,” Ringelheim said. “I lost two friends, both of them to heart problems. One of them was in the mountains in Canovanas on a ventilator and she had no electricity. I couldn’t even get a text message to the area until January. So many people are in rural areas. This is what we’re living through. They have no power, no water.”

‘Water Takes Care of You,
You Take Care of Water’

I took another drive with Haley Broder, IsraAid’s deputy head of mission for Puerto Rico, and other IsraAid workers and volunteers to the remote area of Barrio Real, on the eastern side of the island and one of the 16 wards of the municipality of Patillas.

The last 30 minutes of the drive were up a steep, switchback mountain road, overgrown with lush, green foliage. The hazardous road with a river running through it makes it easy to understand how cut off this particular part of the island is, why there is absolutely no cellphone service, and how it’s conceivable that the community of around 1,300 people and 250 homes received power only a month ago.

IsraAid landed in Puerto Rico to help with initial emergency relief efforts after the hurricane, but stayed to work with the community of Barrio Real in setting up a slow sand, gravitational water filtration system.

“IsraAID never works in isolation,” Broder said. “We’re working with the Barillo Real water board and the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, Recinto de San Germán Campus through the C.E.C.I.A. (the center for environmental education and conservation) department.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated Patillas an area in need of support, because it’s part of the 3 percent of communities on the island that do not receive water from the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewers System.

High in the mountains, we pulled over to the side of the road to meet with IsraAID’s Israeli-born Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) engineer, Mori Neumann, who was out in the baking sun reading the neighborhood’s water meters.

The filtration system, Neumann explained, was important for a number of reasons, including the fact that the system can work without electricity. Construction began in June and is expected to be completed by September.

“Even though you can see and hear the river running behind us, obviously that water was not safe to drink after the hurricane,” Neumann said. People had been taking water from the river, he explained, because even though the community had a well, it wasn’t enough to supply all the residents.

“They were just putting that water into the well, not understanding that it wasn’t safe because the water wasn’t being filtered,” he said.

With issues of soil- and water-borne bacterial diseases, including leptospirosis, being a very real threat in the region, when IsraAID first arrived in the area they handed out water filters to the community and taught people how to use them.

On July 3, while I was still in Puerto Rico, CNN reported that it and the Center for Investigative Journalism had examined the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry’s mortality database and found that 26 people had died from leptospirosis in the wake of the hurricane. CNN reported that, based on those numbers, Puerto Rico should have declared an epidemic in the area.

Because IsraAID works with local communities to make them self-sustainable, part of Neumann’s job is to ensure that the people of Barrio Real know how to continue operating the water system.

To this end, IsraAID has established a series of workshops for the entire community throughout the month of July, under the banner, “Water Takes Care of You, You Take Care of Water.”

IsraAID has partnered with local Puerto Rican agencies on its project, and it has also brought in the three Jewish communities from the three different denominations in Puerto Rico: the Orthodox Chabad, the Conservative Jewish Community Center  and the Reform Temple Beth Shalom. Neumann has trained 14 volunteers from these communities to host the workshops throughout the month.

Husband and wifea Heriberto and Luz Maria (Mayu) Maurás are 71 and 70, have been married 51 years and were born and raised in Barrio Real.

They sat on their porch in the sweltering sun, the river rushing behind their home. Their dogs Leica and her 9-month-old puppy, Princess, lay panting in the midday heat.

Inside the devout Catholic couple’s home, crucifixes and pictures of Jesus adorned the walls, and statues of the Virgin Mary were on almost every available surface.

“The hurricane was horrible,” Mayu said. One of their windows was blown out as they huddled in the hallway during the storm. “We peeked out of our dining room at one point and saw tiny tornados twirling,” she said. “It sounded like a battlefield. And our power didn’t come back on till May 2.”

She said she had no idea what IsraAID was but was thrilled when its staff members came to their remote mountain homes to hand out the water filters and help set up the water project.

Like many residents in this area, she had no idea about water-borne bacterial diseases from the river, and she had been washing her clothes in the river after the hurricane. But she and Heriberto had been to every meeting IsraAID hosted. “We think it’s a great [water] project, but I hope our river doesn’t run out of water because there are a lot of dry areas,” she said.

Like so many other residents all over the island, Mayu praised IsraAID and the Jewish communities in the area for helping them when so many of their own had forgotten them.

“We love Mori,” she said, breaking into a huge smile when Neumann stopped by. “He came down here one day and asked to take a five-minute nap, and he slept on our sofa for two hours,” she added, laughing.

Why do you love him? I asked her.

“Because,” she said, “he’s a humble person fighting for our community.”

Puerto Rico still needs your help. To send donations, please contact Chabad of Puerto Rico at www.chabadpr.com, PR4PR.org and israaid.org/donate

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