NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico and quickly became one of the most devastating storms to hit the island in modern history.
With sustained winds of 64 miles per hour and gusts of up to 109 miles per hour, Puerto Rico was in a complicated position, having to respond to one of the most intense natural disasters in its history despite undergoing internal challenges including its own debt crisis, corruption, and political uncertainty.
Even as 2017 became 2018, as much as 45% of Puerto Rico's households still did not have electricity.
New Brunswick is home to a large population of residents with roots on the island, including many who have family still living there.
Government representatives and community activist groups immediately sprung into action with relief efforts.
All of this took place amid President Donald Trump’s mixed messages on whether the federal government would be providing aid to Puerto Rico, and confusion over what level of responsibility the U.S. had towards the territory.
Though the island is not one of the fifty states, those born on the island are U.S. citizens. Unlike residents of Washington, D.C. or the fifty U.S. states, however, they do not have the ability to vote in the presidential elections.
In a speech before the National Guard, outgoing Governor Chris Christie compared the devastation in Puerto Rico to what coastal residents in New Jersey faced after Hurricane Sandy slammed into the shorelines and wiped away the livelihoods of numerous residents of the state in 2012.
Christie was quick to point out that, despite the similarities, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was in far worse shape than that of New Jersey prior to Hurricane Sandy.
“It is a really really awful situation down there and our fellow Americans need your help,” said Governor Christie.
In Perth Amboy, another city with a sizeable population of individuals identifying as Puerto Rican – 120 pallets of supplies were collected by local residents and shipped to the island at the end of September.
Meanwhile, the New Brunswick Fire Department (NBFD) launched its own collection drive to gather supplies to be shipped to the island of Puerto Rico. Collection began shortly after the storm and continued through November 30.
“We put this together in a week,” said Fire Director Robert Rawls at fire headquarters on Joyce Kilmer Avenue. “It’s just part of who we are and what we do – we are a community-oriented Fire Department.”
A contingent of NBFD staff and city residents also traveled to the island to assist in the disaster relief effort, Rawls explained.
The collection drive kicked off when local residents of New Brunswick gathered on September 30 at the firehouse to volunteer their efforts in helping their fellow citizens who were struggling to rebuild after a devastating storm.
“We are all family,” said Luis Rivera, a New Brunswick resident who came out to support the relief efforts by volunteering his time.
Other locals specifically went shopping in stores for supplies that could be donated to families in need who lacked the necessary access to basic materials in the wake of the storm. One 40-year resident of the city – Aida Bezares – told News Brunswick Today that she donated items from her own storage space, including batteries, soap, flashlights and baby diapers.
“It’s my island,” said Bezares. “I have family there. I have family that lost everything.”
Director Rawls said the goodwill of those who contributed to the collection drive led to more than 20 tons of supplies making its way to those in need.
"We shipped a 40' shipping container which held 52 pallets, and weighed 42,000 lbs. Some of the items shipped were non perishable food items, bottled water, health and beauty supplies, animal food, hygiene items, baby diapers and formula, batteries, [et cetera]," Rawls wrote on December 20.
"The container arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico and was distributed to 6 churches, 11 townships, for distribution throughout the Island. Relief was also supplied to 82 fire fighter families throughout the Island."
Rawls said the department was also helping to assist the victims of Hurricane Harvey, which slammed Houston, Texas, in August of 2017.
As a result, Houston and the surrounding areas experienced historic levels of storm surge that caused extensive flooding and fuel shortages that affected residents across the entire state of Texas as well as nearby states.
In the days following the storm, as far away as Dallas, locals told New Brunswick Today that they stood in gas lines for several hours while fuel was being rationed by the gas station attendants.
"We will soon be sending a 40' tractor trailer load to the Houston area, where similar items and amounts will be distributed to several local towns in the Houston area," wrote Rawls. "Again, a contingent of New Brunswick Fire Fighters will accompany the shipment to assist in the distribution of the Disaster Relief efforts."
The Fire Department was just one of several organizations to make an effort to assist the victims of the 2017 Hurricane season.
On October 21, live Latin music filled the air at Destination Dogs, a downtown bar and restaurant that held its own fundraiser with donations being collected at the door and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of T-Shirts as well as the food and beverages being donated to charity.
"We raised $2000 and we donated it to Unidos Por Puerto Rico," said Jimmy Cronk, one of the restaurant's owners.
On December 3, a variety show event that took place at another local bar, the Ale 'n Wich, raised $1,625 for the same charity, according to Daniel Coghlan, one of the event's organizers.
As for Puerto Rico, President Trump downplayed the damage that was done on the island despite numerous reports of hundreds of thousands of residents without access to basic necessities.
Trump was also widely criticized for his response to the storms, including an event where he tossed paper towels into a crowd of storm victims in Puerto Rico, and public comments that suggested he did not know that he was the President of the U.S. Virgin Islands, another part of the Caribbean devastated by Hurricane Maria.
"I met with the President of the Virgin Islands," said Trump, referring to the territory's Governor.
Both communities, which are U.S. territories, were still recovering from Hurricane Irma, which struck two weeks prior, when Maria doubled their devastation.
A local activist group called the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War held a protest in downtown New Brunswick on October 2 in response to President Trump’s statements and actions over the plight of Puerto Rico’s recovery effort struggles.
The event was dubbed "Money and Support for Puerto Rico – Not for War."
Nonetheless, the problems that contributed to the difficulties in recovery were rooted not just in the often-cited debt crisis but also larger issues of corruption, particularly involving the electric utility companies that played a key role by being responsible for large portions of the debt obligations, according to Rutgers University sociologist Zaire Dinzey-Flores.
Dinzey-Flores studies Puerto Rico professionally and has family living on the island. She mentioned that despite extensive media coverage of the natural disaster, nobody has so far discussed the impact of the storm on residents that live in public housing who struggle to survive during calm season, let alone after a direct hit on the island by a major hurricane.
This and many other issues that existed on the island prior to Hurricane Maria making landfall, were suddenly amplified and led to the severe delays and communication difficulties that engulfed Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the powerful storm and complicated the recovery efforts.
“This disaster, while it has touched everyone, it also has exposed the differences in conditions that exist within the island,” said Dinzey-Flores. “The fact that people in major metropolitan area can sustain communications while the rest of the island continues to be incomunicado.”