Seattle Puerto Ricans ignite grassroots hurricane relief

People gather at La Isla restaurant in Ballard for a benefit for hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. (Photo by Juan Calaf).

Ballard’s air on Sunday was warm with smoke from a lechon roast and with music from Hijos de Agüeybaná and Proyecto Seattle Bombazo, as hundreds of people gathered for a benefit for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.

Gaby Bergollo pulled a black suitcase up the sidewalk. The suitcase contained 26 first aid kits assembled from donations collected by a new network called Volunteers for Puerto Rico in Washington.

“These are just some of the 120 kits we assembled,” Bergollo said. “We have volunteers going to Puerto Rico to take supplies every single week from now till January.”

Bergollo, a research assistant at the University of Washington, was headed to Puerto Rico that very night. She was taking the suitcase with her to distribute first aid kits and other supplies around Bayamon, Corozal and small towns in the center of the island.

This grassroots relief effort is just one of many launched by Puerto Rican communities across the United States. Direct aid that reaches the island through members of the diaspora like Bergollo could be an effective supplement to mass aid, especially given the island’s devastated transportation and communications infrastructure, FEMA inefficiencies, and the uneven quality of municipal distribution.

While debate rages about the dangers of the militarization of relief distribution and the controversial Jones Act and its unique impacts on Puerto Rico, it seems that community-to-community aid may be the most universally supported — and definitively humanitarian — form of relief happening now.

“We want people on the island to know that they are not alone,” Bergollo said. “That there are a lot of people here in the Pacific Northwest, 4000 miles away, who are doing everything we can to help.”

Jordynn Knott and Gaby Bergollo hold first aid kits that Bergollo will personally bring to the island. (Photo by Jen Soriano)

Meanwhile, outside of host restaurant La Isla, volunteers managed a prize wheel that cost $20 per spin. Two children ran their own sidewalk bakeshop with towers of homemade pastel-frosted cupcakes and fresh lemonade. The line for $30 plates of food went out the door, and inside the restaurant, the length of an entire wall was lined with silent auction items, including a baseball signed by Mariners pitcher Edwin Diaz.

All proceeds from the restaurant’s fundraiser went to the La Isla Hurricane Relief fund, which will provide direct relief to communities hardest hit by María. It will also pay for ongoing transportation of volunteers and supplies from Seattle to the island.

Vicente Bravo, general manager of La Isla, initiated the fund along with business partner Greg Petry. During the Sunday fundraiser, Bravo hurried back and forth between prepping food in the kitchen, entertaining guests and stacking donated supplies inside a repurposed food truck parked out front.

Bravo, another member of the Puerto Rican diaspora, plans to join other volunteers to bring three storage units full of boxes of donated supplies to Puerto Rico by truck and ship, commercial carrier or chartered plane within the next two weeks.

More than 200 volunteers, some from as far away as Mukilteo and Tacoma, helped organize the Sunday benefit.

“There is such a range of people who stepped up to volunteer — people of all ethnicities and backgrounds, not just Puerto Ricans,” says Erika Almanza Brown, one of the head organizers. She identifies as Spanish-Mexican-American. “People from all walks of life want to help, they just need a centralized effort to plug into.”

Big community

Some local Puerto Ricans say this is the start of connecting the local community with the island and helping its long-term recovery.

Michelle Font describes herself as a descendent of “the original Washiricans” — Puerto Ricans who came to Washington in the 1970s to work for Boeing. Her father is a retired Boeing engineer who was responsible for recruiting more than 400 Puerto Ricans to the company.

Font followed in her father’s footsteps at Boeing. She graduated from University of Washington with an engineering degree and worked for Boeing for 11 years. In 2008, she won the Miss Washington USA pageant, and is still the only Latina to have ever served as Miss Washington USA.

Font started the Facebook group Volunteers for Puerto Rico in Washington after Bravo and Petry called for volunteers to support immediate hurricane relief. The group brings together new volunteers as well as organizations including Puerto Rico se Levanta, the Puerto Rico Association of Washington State and Boricuas in Seattle.

“Growing up I always wanted a big Puerto Rican community and we didn’t have that back then,” Font said. “Now there are 29,000 of us in the state of Washington, and [Hurricane María]  has unified us. It’s an opportunity to help Puerto Rico rebuild stronger and with better infrastructure. Hopefully we can help this happen within a year, before next hurricane season, to prevent a repeat of this catastrophe.”

Three weeks after María made landfall, the catastrophe continues.  On the same day as the Ballard benefit, heavy rainfall re-flooded much of San Juan. The National Weather Service has issued a flash flood warning for the entire island through Thursday, Oct. 12. About 91 percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power and 56 percent are without drinkable water. Agricultural production is virtually wiped out.

It may take up to a year to restore power to everyone on the island. It also remains to be seen if electrical, communications and agricultural infrastructure is built for greater strength and sustainability.

“I’m terrified that another storm will come,” said Font, whose entire extended family lives in San Juan and the hard-hit mountain town of Barranquitas. “I’m concerned about warming oceans and the effect that climate change seems to be having on worsening hurricanes. I want to help make sure the island is rebuilt with resistance in mind.”

Other relief efforts are being organized around the state. These include a Halloween fundraiser, a dancing for Puerto Rico event in Tacoma, drives to secure ongoing donations from local corporate giants like Amazon, Boeing, Costco and Starbucks, and a fundraiser discussion on US colonialism.

On the federal level, the House Appropriations Committee approved a $36.5 billion emergency funding package, which includes money for recovery from the wildfires in California and the storms in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

According to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who spoke at the Sunday benefit, a $7.4 billion direct aid package had already been passed by the House. But Jayapal said that this is “a tiny, tiny drop in the bucket.” According to Moody’s Analytics, Hurricane María may have caused up to $95 billion in damage to Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and economy.

Jayapal called for eliminating FEMA cost-sharing and suggested a plan to rebuild Puerto Rico, similar to how the Marshall plan funded rebuilding in Europe after World War II.

“This is an opportunity to think about renewable energy sources and green energy jobs and good wages so as we rebuild we are rebuilding to the future,” she said.

Wadiyah Nelson, a librarian and Beacon Hill resident who came to the Sunday benefit to support Puerto Rican friends, believes the US government has a debt to pay to Puerto Rico as well as the US Virgin Islands.

“I’ve been outraged at the government response thus far. And I’m just worried, worried about the hospitals, worried about the people. I can’t do it all, but I came today and donated, and this is what I can do.”

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2 Comments

  1. I posted this on Puerto Rico Maria Updates 30 minutes ago and it already has 85 Likes and 15 shares. Thank you for this article.

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