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El Barrio Rallies to Help Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria's Devastation

By Gustavo Solis | September 21, 2017 4:39pm

EAST HARLEM — Most of the seniors of Casabe Houses for the Elderly didn’t sleep Wednesday night, as Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc throughout Puerto Rico.

They were worried about friends and family on the island.

“I haven’t been able to get in touch with my family,” said Maria Muniz, social services coordinator at Casabe. Her family lives in the mountain town of Aibonito. “We really don’t know what is going on because there’s no communication right now. Everything is down.”

The storm knocked off Puerto Rico’s entire electrical grid Wednesday night. There is flooding throughout much of the island and no official figures on deaths and injuries have been released.

More than 1,500 miles away at the senior center in East Harlem, residents are lucky just to get a couple of minutes on the phone with loved ones.

“I tried to call [my in-laws] through Facebook,” said Daniela Belendez, 74. “They answered and said, ‘We’re OK,’ but then the phone cut off.”

Victor Manuel Gonzalez, 69, is most worried about his uncle, an 88-year-old Korean War veteran who lives alone in the town of Carolina, near San Juan. Gonzalez spoke with his uncle Wednesday night but is worried about his ability to survive the flooding and electrical outages that are currently affecting the island.

“They don’t have potable water,” Gonzalez said. “My uncle is waiting for the government or somebody to bring him water. He’s been eating out of cans for two days.”

On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito outlined the city’s response to Hurricane Maria.

There is already a small contingency of NYPD and FDNY personnel in Puerto Rico. They flew in to aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and are there to help with Maria, de Blasio said.

Twenty-seven more first responders are ready to be deployed to Puerto Rico as soon as possible. They will get on a plane as soon as they get a green light from FEMA, the mayor said.

The city is setting up donation centers in the five boroughs asking specifically for diapers, baby food, batteries and first aid materials, the mayor added.

Mark-Viverito, who was born in San Juan and represents East Harlem, called the hurricane, “the most catastrophic in the history of the island.”

“The reality is that the Puerto Rico we knew two days ago is not the Puerto Rico we see today,” she said.

Casabe Senior Center is also accepting donations. Muniz’s phone rang nonstop Thursday afternoon with people asking what to donate. The most immediate needs are medical equipment, baby food, diapers, and flashlights, she said.

Casabe is working with an organization in The Bronx that is accepting donations at El Maestro Cultural Center at 1300 Southern Blvd.

Whenever the two donation bins at Casabe’s lobby are filled to capacity, the super Jose Feliciano stores the donations in another room. He’s been moving goods back and forth all day.

Like many of the people who live in Casabe, Feliciano also has family in Puerto Rico, the southern town of Ponce. He’s trying to keep busy by running to a hardware store to buy flashlights and organizing all the donations before they are shipped off to Puerto Rico. But he can’t take his mind off family members that he hasn’t been able to call.

“It’s hard to take your mind off that because of all the people suffering over there,” he said.