S.J. Region's Puerto Ricans Working Together to Bring Relief to Devastated Island

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Marcos Avilies Higher Praises

Marcos Aviles is one of hundreds of Cumberland County residents with family in Puerto Rico.
Like many, the youth pastor is supporting local relief efforts. (Photo: Clyde Hughes) 

VINELAND – It was 12 days of silence from the time Marcos Aviles's family in Vineland heard from cousins in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

While Aviles, a youth pastor at Higher Places Ministries, helped pack truckloads of supplies that have been brought to the church, he and his mother worried when – or if – they would hear from family members on the Caribbean island.

The contact came Monday (Oct. 2) in an unusual way when one of the family members was interviewed on CBS News, Aviles said.

"It was the first time my mom was able to see them, when they were on the news," Aviles said. "Actually, the interviewer then hooked up my cousins with a satellite phone where they were to give us a call and let people here know that they were OK."

Stories like Aviles' and his mother Wanda Ellis' have been playing out in Puerto Rican communities across the mainland United States as the island territory slowly begins to rebuild its infrastructure after Hurricane Maria.

It was the first time my mom was able to see them, when they were on the news.

"They are still without electricity, but I think they are doing OK with water," Aviles told SNJ Today. "No matter what people can donate, they can still use the help."

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Maria was one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the United States, registering as a Category 4 storm when it slammed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour.

The storm did a number on Puerto Rico's aging infrastructure with much of the island still without electricity nearly two weeks after it made landfall. Hurricane Maria also ravaged the island's communication network, leaving most of Puerto Ricans without cellphone service.

Higher Praises Dropoff Relief Maria (LEFT: Donations are being accepted at Higher Places Ministries in Vineland. Photo: Clyde Hughes)

That made for anxious days for many families on the mainland, hoping to hear from loved ones on the island. Those services have been slow in returning as well, with some signals coming back online Sunday (Oct. 1), according to Reuters.

"This island is still a mess and is going to be a mess for a long time," New Jersey native Mark Buondonno, who is now a business owner in Puerto Rico, said on Facebook Monday. "There are hundreds of families just in our town that need major help. … Red Cross and [Federal Emergency Management Agency] trucks finally arrived today so some help is filtering in."

Ralph Padilla, the chief executive officer of the Puerto Rico Action Committee of Southern New Jersey, based in Vineland, said while there are urgent needs, Puerto Rico recovery will take years, if not decades.

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"There's a need for immediate assistance," Padilla said. "We are preparing for the long haul. State and local government leaders need to support the population from Puerto Rico that's coming here. This isn't a normal transition. They are fleeing the island for lack of water. They are saying that: 'I don't want my children to be left behind educationally,'" he continued.

Padilla's Puerto Rican ties run deep. According to the PRAC of SNJ website, his mother Rosa Padilla is from Villaba, Puerto Rico, and his late father Rafael Padilla is from Jayuya, Puerto Rico.

"What we do as Americans is that when we recognize disaster like this, we put our differences aside," Padilla said. "There is no time for partisan politics, or asking where you're from. We want to continue to educate people and address immediate needs.

"We need to work together and ship goods over in a timely manner. We need to understand that this is going to be a long, long reconstruction period."

But what can residents in South Jersey do to help?

State and local government leaders need to support the population from Puerto Rico that's coming here.

Padilla said PRAC of SNJ is taking monetary and product donations at its offices in Vineland, Penns Grove, and Woodbine.

He said in anticipation of Puerto Rican residents moving to New Jersey to be with family here while the island goes through its transition, local organizations will need help as well aloading truck ssisting the influx.

(Photo: Clyde Hughes)

Cruz Gomez, an assistant pastor at Higher Places Ministries in Vineland, said that there are a wide variety of things Puerto Rican residents need – from bottled water and non-perishable good, to paper products, hygiene supplies like toothbrushes and feminine products, to flash lights, batteries and candles.

"What families have been asking for lately are gas cans," Gomez said, addressing the need for families to collect gasolines for vehicles that may have run out of gas in long lines. "That's something new but something many have been asking for."

Gomez said practically everyone at their church congregation of 300 had some relative or friend affected by Hurricane Maria, making the donation efforts there personal. Higher Places has been accepting donations for Puerto Rico from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

Aviles said the fact that some of his relatives may be receiving the supplies has made him look at each and every donation a new way.

"We're really careful and inventory each and every donation," Aviles said. "You get a feel by looking at all of these donations of what people really need and how important it is to them.

"Storms like Maria can wipe everything out and do some serious damage. We want to make sure everybody gets what they need. Seeing these impacts you straight to the heart."

Padilla said the hurricane happened at the worst time in Puerto Rico's history because the island had been going through difficult times economically. Before Hurricane Maria hit, about 80,000 people were without power after Hurricane Irma sideswiped the island two weeks earlier while on its way to Florida.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority was already $9 billion in debt and plagued by poor service and high rates before the hurricanes, according to the Washington Post. The authority said it needed more than $4 billion to bring outdated power plants up to standard and reduce its need for imported oil when it filed for bankruptcy July 2, noted the newspaper.

"Our approach is that it is going to be a marathon relief effort," Padilla said. "Considering Puerto Rico was in an economic crisis before the hurricanes, we know this will take a long-term commitment to the island." 

Loading Truck

Avila, right, loading a truck with supplies at Higher Places Ministries in Vinland.
Water has been one of the top items donated at Higher Places, but organizers said they need a variety of products. (Photo: Clyde Hughes)

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