Seattle’s Caribbean communities send aid to storm-damaged homelands

Homes lay in ruin as seen from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations, Black Hawk during a flyover of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria September 23, 2017. (Photo by Kris Grogan for U.S. Customs and Border Protection via Flickr)

When I reached Carmen Maymi O’Reilly last week, she was standing in line at Western Union and asked me to call her back. An hour later, she answered the phone exasperated. Western Union would only let her send a maximum of $50 per person to four family members in Puerto Rico suffering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service wasn’t taking packages. She had almond milk for her nephew, who’s allergic to dairy milk, but no way to send it.

“I’m not doing well, I’m a mess,” she told me. “The hardest thing for us is that there’s nothing we can do, every avenue is blocked.”

That sense of helplessness in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria was shared by many in Seattle originally from the Caribbean. First came the dread of following news of the storm from several thousand miles away, then waiting in agony for friends and family to resurface after communication was cut off for days, and now the slow calculation of how to support recovery efforts.

For Maymi O’Reilly, a retired Seattle Public District social worker who was born in Caguaz, Puerto Rico, and came to the University of Washington in 1978, the waiting period from when the storm made landfall until she heard from her loved ones was “pure anguish,” she said.

“I had a knot in my stomach for almost the whole week,” said Pauline Elwin-Smith, a native of Dominica, an independent nation that Hurricane Maria ravaged before thrashing Puerto Rico. Elwin-Smith took a personal day off from her job as a city of Seattle grants and contracts specialist on Sept. 19, the day after Maria made landfall in Dominica.

“I was devastated, worried, and concerned after hearing what CNN had to report,” she said. It wasn’t until the end of that week, Friday, Sept. 22, that she received a text message from her brother saying that her immediate family had survived.

While that was good news, there was still plenty of bad news to report. Elwin-Smith knew people who perished in the storm and several of her relatives’ homes were severely damaged — a cousin’s roof was ripped off and an electric pole fell on her 95-year-old grandmother’s house.

For a woman who survived Hurricane David in 1979, Maria was much worse.

“It was just disastrous,” Elwin-Smith said. “From what I understand, [my grandmother] has never experienced anything like that in her life.”

Marcus Barry, a manager at Amazon originally from Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, shared the sense that September’s hurricanes were the worst in a lifetime. He was a teenager in 1995 when Hurricane Luis brought his home island, which is half-Dutch and half-French, to its knees.

His family was smart about rebuilding, he said, describing his house as “like Fort Knox” with solid mahogany shutters and metal bars designed to be resistant to hurricanes as well as looters. So when Hurricane Irma roared through, the house withstood the worst. “I’m one of the luckier ones,” he said.

But lucky in such a brutal context still meant hardship. In the days leading up to the hurricane, he had to coach his mother over the phone about how to react to the direction the wind is blowing during the storm, for example opening certain windows slightly to avoid too much air pressure building up inside the house.

Amazingly, Barry received a call from his mother while the island was in the eye of the storm, but then lost contact for two days once the second half of Irma slammed through the island.

Barry’s father, who is on dialysis, has since been airlifted to Aruba, which is a Dutch possession like Sint Maarten, to keep up his medical treatment. His mother and elderly grandmother remain on the island and until recently were living on rations provided by Dutch soldiers.

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin remains under a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew following bouts of violent looting, but electricity has been restored. On the Dutch side of the island, where Barry’s family lives, one-third of all buildings were destroyed and 90 percent were damaged.

Barry monitors the situation closely from his office at Amazon, where he said countless coworkers have come up to him to offer their support and inquire about his family. In late August, Amazon announced a $1 million matching donation to Red Cross relief for Hurricane Harvey in Texas, but has yet to announce any charitable efforts for Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“Right now I’m more (of) use to my family out here,” Barry said. “Going down there would just be me walking amongst destruction.”

With an established life in the U.S. – a former Microsoft employee, he has lived in the Seattle area for 12 years – he will be a resource to order building materials from the U.S and send them to Sint Maarten once the shipping and air routes reopen.

While the U.S. government’s overall response to the post-hurricane need in its Caribbean territories has been criticized, some immediate relief for the islands has come from the Puget Sound region in the form of Joint Base Lewis McChord, home of the 62nd Air Lift Wing. The Air Force has relied on its Northwest contingent to fly 15 missions to hurricane-affected areas, delivering FEMA personnel to St. Thomas, coordinating air traffic from Martinique, and providing supplies and airlifting out medical patients across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Caribbean community, meanwhile, will be mounting its own fundraising relief efforts this weekend at two restaurants in Seattle that serve the West Indian and Puerto Rican communities. They will be offering traditional food, music from salsa to soca, and a domino tournament to raise money with all proceeds after costs going to support relief efforts.

Can’t make it to either event? The people interviewed this story endorsed the following charities to support the people suffering in their homelands.

Vox also has a useful guide when deciding how to donate after natural disasters.

Correction: an earlier version of this post listed the dates incorrectly. The dates are now corrected. A quote by Marcus Barry was also clarified.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for your post. I also saw that Harvest Vine is holding a fundraiser for Puerto Rico –

    Date: Thursday October 12, 2017
    Time: 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
    Place: The Harvest Vine
    Cost: $100 plus tax ($110.01)

    In response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria to the islands of Puerto Rico, the Harvest Vine will close for regular service and hold a benefit party for our fellow citizens. 100% of sales and all additional contributions, will be donated to World Central Kitchen’s relief project in Puerto Rico. This organization, founded and run by acclaimed Basque chef José Andrés, is in Puerto Rico preparing thousands of meals daily for the most vulnerable citizens of the islands.
    Please join us for a wine and pintxo party. Enjoy a variety of bites and plates from the open kitchen counter and down in the wine cellar, all paired with a few of our favorite spanish wines. There will also be an opportunity to make additional direct donations, purchase raffle tickets and participate in our silent auction.
    The Harvest Vine will be donating all of the food, wine and labor for the evening, so 100% of the your ticket price, raffle and auction proceeds, and any additional contributions will be donated to World Central Kitchen. Please help us reach our goal of raising $15,000.00 to help feed our fellow citizens in need.

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