Ysamar Figueroa carrying her son Saniel, looks at the damage in the neighborhood after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in Canovanas, Puerto Rico on Tuesday. (Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)
People wait at a gas station to fill up their fuel containers, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico Wednesday.(Reuters/Alvin Baez)
Stephens Landscaping of Moultonborough has a work crew largely comprised of seasonal employees from Puerto Rico. From left are co-owner Mark Stephens, José Abrew, Arquinides Santiago, and co-owner John Stephens. (Tom Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)
Seasonal workers on edge awaiting word on their Puerto Rican families
3.4 million American citizens struggling a week after Hurricane Maria
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
MOULTONBOROUGH — The devastation to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria may seem distant from Moultonborough, but it is close to the hearts of many seasonal employees here who are awaiting word from their families after the storm took down communications and created food and water shortages across the island.
“We try to call every day, but there are still no communications at all, a week after the storm,” said José Abrew, who works for Stephens Landscaping. “We feel worse being here than being there, because it’s a pretty bad situation, but we need to keep going.”
Abrew is among a large contingent of Americans from Puerto Rico who have come to New England for job opportunities that do not exist on the island. Some are employed at resorts, others with cleaning companies, and, in Moultonborough, many have found jobs in the landscaping industry.
Chris Maroun, owner of Miracle Farms Landscaping, said he hires 60 to 70 Puerto Rican employees to work during the seven busiest months of the year. They come to provide for their families back in Puerto Rico, and then return home for the winter months.
Mark and John Stephens, who operate Stephens Landscaping, have 30 to 35 employees, most of whom are seasonal workers from Puerto Rico.
“They’re all like family to us,” John Stephens said. “It’s mentally bogged me down, to put myself in their shoes, knowing it’s got to be very difficult to be away from their families at a time like this. We’re saying a lot of prayers in the morning, and we’re all here for one another.”
As Maria moved closer to the island, which with 3,435 square miles is comparable to the size of Connecticut and is bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, those in Moultonborough were keeping an eye on the projections of where the storm might lead. Maroun said that, when it became apparent that Maria was going straight to the center of island, where his employees’ families lived, there was a lot of pandemonium.
“It was going to be a direct hit on a town where a bunch of our guys were from,” Maroun said, referring to Orocovis, at the center of the island. Some also had family members in Adjuntas, in the west-central area, near Garzas.
Since the storm struck on Sept. 20, there has been minimal communication from the island, leaving the workers wondering about the fates of their loved ones. People living in homes built of concrete were likely to weather the storm in relative safety, but those in wooden houses could be in trouble. Then there were the food and water shortages to cope with.
Gov. Ricardo Rosselo has called for an aid package from Congress to avoid a crisis, but for some, the crisis is already there. People are facing day-long waits to purchase gasoline, and food and water are extremely hard to come by.
Aid workers in San Juan, which came through the storm in much better shape than other places, have been calling for assistance from private pilots with airplanes or helicopters who could help evacuate patients off the island.
Debbie Adams of CruCon, which has an office in Moultonborough and works with cruise lines, said they are using cruise ships to offer safe places for people to stay during the crisis.
Gov. Chris Sununu announced Wednesday that his office, in coordination with New Hampshire Emergency Management, is accepting donations of critical items such as bottled water, ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits, and vegetables, can openers, protein or fruit bars, dry cereal or granola, peanut butter, dried fruit, canned juices, non-perishable pasteurized milk, high-energy foods, and food for infants.
Sununu has asked for items to be dropped off on Oct. 3 and 4 between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on the State House lawn, noting that only dated and non-expired items will be accepted.
‘Worst week of my life’
“Some workers have heard from their families,” Maroun said, “but a few have not heard anything at all, or had any contact with their families. We had booked a couple of flights for them to go back and check on their relatives, but they haven’t been able to get out because of canceled flights.”
Abrew said the uncertainty about the families in Puerto Rico has made this “the worst week of my life.”
Abrew said a lot of people working on the mainland who wanted to go back to Puerto Rico have been stranded at the airports for week, waiting to get a flight. He has heard that some of them were fired from their jobs for trying to get home to their families, and others did not try to leave for fear of being fired.
Mark Stephens said they support their team.
“Family, life necessities, are more important than work any day,” he said.
He noted that those who want to go back say it would only be for five or seven days, so they can check on their families and perhaps bring them here. “They don’t want to leave us high and dry,” he said. “I think most of our guys will stick around.”
Abrew said Puerto Rico is a beautiful island — at least before the hurricane — but work opportunities are scarce. The jobs that are available do not pay well, and that is why so many residents sought work up north. And, while they are happy to get back home and spend time with their families during the winter months, they appreciate the jobs they get here.
Arquimides Santiago, who serves as head mechanic for Stephens Landscaping, formerly taught an auto body class in Puerto Rico, but when Abrew put out the call for additional workers in Moultonborough, he joined the company. He has been there four years now.
Abrew has been with Stephens for five years, but followed a different path. Several members of his family had already relocated to New England, and he was working for a company in Massachusetts until it moved operations to Mexico. He wanted to stay in New England and took a job with another company for three years before joining Stephens. He lives here full-time.
People on the island struggle to find jobs, Abrew said. There are 3.4 million residents, and the few factories that exist are fully staffed and don’t pay well. Most people find part-time work, such as picking coffee beans. Most jobs pay minimum wage, and Abrew said his mother worked 20 years without ever getting a raise.
Maroun said that, for the seven months his workers are here, they become fully integrated into the community.
“One of the things we’re most proud of is that, for many years, every single one of our employees has been making donations of $5 a week to United Way because they feel so committed to the the community that helps them make a living,” Maroun said. “They’ve always been a part of that, and they always do a lot of work helping with different projects in the community. They’re always some of the first to step up. So we thought it would be great to give to them in this time of incredible need.”
Miracle Farms set up a GoFundMe page to provide hurricane relief to the island. The site, at www.gofundme.com/miracle-farms-hurricane-relief-fund, seeks to provide money that will be “distributed carefully and responsibly to try and maximize the extent of this assistance.”
Puerto Rico was already burdened by billions of dollars of debt, and Gov. Rossello said the damage from the hurricane could lead to a massive exodus to the mainland. In addition to everything else, the island is threatened by a “critical infrastructure failure” at the Gajataca Dam in the northwest corner, threatening to flood an area occupied by 70,000 people. The government asked residents below the dam to evacuate their homes.
“We were trying to think of ways to help, so we started the GoFundMe page, looking to get some public interest in what we’re doing out there,” Maroun said.
John Stephens said Moultonborough residents have been very generous in supporting his workers.
“Our clients are giving donations because they know these guys on a first-name basis in many cases. The clients truly care about these guys, and the community has been super,” he said. “Our clients have been really understanding because there has been a change of schedule as a result of this,” said Mark Stephens.
“Being separated from their families is hard, for sure,” John Stephens said. “But most know they’re here for seven months and then they can spend five months at home with their families.”
With the devastation from the hurricane, that may no longer be an option.
Mark Stephens said many of those who are working here part of the year may want to bring their families to live permanently in New Hampshire, and the company has been speaking with other businesses who might offer employment.
“But finding affordable housing is the single most-challenging thing,” he said.
Those interested in making monetary donations to help the residents of Puerto Rico may do so at ReadyNH.gov; follow the links to national, regional, and local disaster response organizations. For further information, call 2-1-1, New Hampshire's statewide, comprehensive, information and referral service, operated by Granite United Way. Miracle Farms set up a GoFundMe page is at www.gofundme.com/miracle-farms-hurricane-relief-fund.
Workers gather for a company photo at Stephens Landscaping of Moultonborough. Owners John and Mark Stephens say Puerto Rican workers make up 90 percent of their team. (Courtesy photo)
Sununu announces New Hampshire’s response to help Puerto Rico
CONCORD — Governor Chris Sununu announced that his office, in coordination with New Hampshire Emergency Management, will accept in-kind donations for victims of the developing humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico.
“Today, I am proud to officially kick off and announce New Hampshire’s response to help Puerto Rico, led by New Hampshire’s dedicated and generous state employees,” said Sununu. “Since these tragedies, generous granite Staters have called and emailed our office asking how they can help. They’ve offered water, canned goods, and other nonperishable items. Yaritza Rodriguez, a Manchester resident, has collected over three pallets worth of non-perishable goods for the people of Puerto Rico, but has no way to send them. Granite Staters can pull up right up alongside the State House, and drop off their donations. No donation is too small or insignificant.”
On Oct. 3 and 4 from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Granite Staters can drop off bottled water and nonperishable foods at the State House lawn to help fulfill the needs of the residents of Puerto Rico.
Only dated and non-expired bottled water and nonperishable food items can be accepted. The following items are best:
Ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits, vegetables
Protein or fruit bars
Dry cereal or granola
Nonperishable pasteurized milk
High energy foods
Food for infants
Puerto Ricans say US relief efforts failing them
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The Trump administration declared Thursday that its relief efforts in Puerto Rico are succeeding, but people on the island said help was scarce and disorganized while food supplies dwindled in some remote towns eight days after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory of 3.4 million people.
President Donald Trump cleared the way for more supplies to head to Puerto Rico by issuing a 10-day waiver of federal restrictions on foreign ships delivering cargo to the island. And House Speaker Paul Ryan said the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief account would get a $6.7 billion boost by the end of the week.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke declared that "the relief effort is under control."
"It is really a good news story, in terms of our ability to reach people," she told reporters in the White House driveway.
Outside the capital, San Juan, people said that was far from the truth.
"I have not received any help, and we ran out of food yesterday," said Mari Olivo, a 27-year-old homemaker whose husband was pushing a shopping cart with empty plastic gallon jugs while their two children, 9 and 7, each toted a large bucket. They stood in line in a parking lot in the town of Bayamon near the hard-hit northern coast, where local police used hoses to fill up containers from a city water truck.
"I have not seen any federal help around here," said Javier San Miguel, a 51-year-old accountant.
In the town of San Lorenzo, about 40 miles west of the capital, people walked through calf-high water to get supplies because the bridge over the Manati river outside town was washed away in the storm.
San Lorenzo residents are collecting spring water to drink and taking turns cooking food for each other because residents are running low on basic supplies.
"Just like God helps us, we help each other," said resident Noemi Santiago, weeping. "Here one person makes food one day, another makes it the other day, so that the food that we have goes further."
FEMA, which is leading the relief effort, has sent 150 containers filled with relief supplies to the port of San Juan since the hurricane struck on Sept. 20, said Omar Negron, director of Puerto Rico's Ports Authority. He said all the containers were dispatched to people in need but private aid supplies have not reached Puerto Rico.
"The federal response has been a disaster," said lawmaker Jose Enrique Melendez, a member of Gov. Ricardo Rossello's New Progressive Party. "It's been really slow."
He said the Trump administration had focused more on making a good impression on members of the media gathered at San Juan's convention center than bringing aid to rural Puerto Rico.
"There are people literally just modeling their uniforms," Melendez said. "People are suffering outside."
Trump and his advisers defended the administration's response to the hurricane, which destroyed much of the island's infrastructure and left many residents desperate for fresh water, power, food and other supplies.
"The electric power grid in Puerto Rico is totally shot. Large numbers of generators are now on Island. Food and water on site," Trump tweeted early in the day.
Bayamon Mayor Ramon Luis Rivera told The Associated Press that FEMA officials sent a truck with a limited amount of food Monday. Rivera said he began distributing it to hard-hit rural areas.
"I don't wait," he said when asked whether federal officials helped with distribution.
In the nearby fishing town of Catano, authorities said they would open a distribution point over the weekend to hand out food and water, nearly two weeks after the hurricane hit.
"We need food," said Maritza Gonzalez, a 49-year-old government worker.
Presidential spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said 10,000 government workers, including more than 7,000 troops, were helping Puerto Rico recover.
The U.S. military was sending a three-star general to Puerto Rico to help direct the hurricane response. Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, commander of U.S. Army North, was set to arrive Thursday to assess the situation so that the military can provide the highest possible level of support, Northern Command spokesman John Cornelio said.
FEMA officials said Thursday that a million meals and 2 million liters of fresh water had been distributed in Puerto Rico and 2 million more meals and 2 million more liters of water were on the way. There were conflicting figures: A day earlier, FEMA said it had distributed 167,000 meals and 539,000 bottles of water.
The Department of Homeland Security's acting administrator of the region that includes Puerto Rico said distribution had been hampered by the destruction of roads and bridges, which makes it hard to get supplies to those in need.
"In addition to building that first line of the supply chain, we are also rebuilding the entire distribution system ... how we're going to deliver commodities and resources to the people of Puerto Rico," acting administrator John Rabin told reporters in San Juan. "We have often had to recreate the system in order to deliver food, water and commodities throughout the island."
The House speaker announced that the FEMA's disaster relief account would get "a huge capital injection" of $6.7 billion by the end of the week to help Puerto Rico recover. Ryan noted that Trump had waived a matching funds requirement, which means the cash-strapped island won't have to contribute to the initial costs of the federal assistance. The Wisconsin Republican said he expects the Trump administration to send Congress a request for a long-term recovery package once damage assessments are conducted.
"We will quickly act on that request," Ryan said.
Duke, the acting homeland security secretary, had waived a law known as Jones Act earlier this month to help ease fuel shortages in the U.S. Southeast following hurricanes Harvey and Irma. That order included Puerto Rico but expired last week, shortly after Maria struck. The nearly century-old Jones Act bars foreign-flagged ships from carrying cargos from U.S. port to another.
The Trump administration initially said a waiver was not needed for Puerto Rico because there were enough U.S.-flagged ships available to ferry goods to the island.
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