In Puerto Rico, ‘The need is everywhere’

Holyoke family collecting supplies for family in Puerto Rico

  • In this Saturday, Oct. 14 2017 photo, people queue in their cars to buy drinking water, in Dorado, Puerto Rico. Nearly a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall, officials say running water has been restored to 72 percent of the island’s people. The water authority says it’s safe to drink, thought the health department still recommends boiling or disinfecting it. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa) Ramon Espinosa

  • In this Saturday, Oct. 14 2017 photo, people affected by Hurricane Maria collect water and others bathe in water piped from a creek in the mountains, in Utuado, Puerto Rico. Raw sewage is pouring into the rivers and reservoirs of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Puerto Ricans without running water are bathing and washing their clothes in contaminated streams. At least four people have died of diseases caught from dirty water. AP Photo

  • In this Saturday photo, people affected by Hurricane Maria bathe in water piped from a creek in the mountains, in Utuado, Puerto Rico. Raw sewage is pouring into the rivers and reservoirs of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. AP Photo

  • In this Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 photo, Arturo de Jesus Melendez and his wife Madeli walk through their home and property destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. Arturo and his wife Madeli were separated before the storm, and recently got back together in the wake of the storm that hit on Sept. 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa) Ramon Espinosa

  • FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017 file photo, destroyed communities are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. The House is on track to backing President Donald Trump's request for billions more in disaster aid, 16 billion to pay flood insurance claims and emergency funding to help the cash-strapped government of Puerto Rico stay afloat. The hurricane aid package Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, totals 36.5 billion and sticks close to a White House request, ignoring - for now - huge demands from the powerful Florida and Texas delegations, who together pressed for some 40 billion more. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File) Gerald Herbert

  • Melany Mendoza, her husband Jeff Mackler, and their son Diego Mendoza-Mackler, are collecting supplies to send to Puerto Rico. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A U.S. Army helicopter transports material to repair damage to the Guajataca Dam in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, Tuesday. AP Photo

  • Melany Mendoza posted a list of supplies needed for her family members and others in Puerto Rico on Amazon. The wish list was filled in five hours. Now the family will send the supplies to the island. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2017

HOLYOKE — For five days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Melany Mendoza heard nothing from her family stuck on the island. When phone calls and messages starting coming though, they were random, infrequent and urgent.

“When you hear from someone, it’s like, what do you need, what can I do?” Mendoza’s husband, Jeff Mackler, said.

Mendoza, of Holyoke, created an Amazon wish list of essential items. Solar lights, bug spray, water purification tablets and cans of food topped the list. In just five hours, friends had purchased every item.

“I think at this point we can’t provide for everyone but we are trying to do whatever we can to support and use the leverage we have here to bring whatever we can there,” Mendoza said. “Some little help is better than no help at all.”

Her cousin Edual Mendoza in Florida collected the donations and spent days trying to book a flight to Puerto Rico to deliver the supplies. After he made the trip, the family was able to connect with an acquaintance at the post office who could help deliver more packages through the mail in the future.

“It can take 20 phone calls and many hours to reach someone because they have to, like, stand on top of a mountain on their tippy-toes to try to get a signal,” Mackler said “It’s ridiculous.”

“It is imperative for people to have communication,” Mendoza said. “You can go to the internet and get things to your family, you can get communication with those externally, you can go and apply for a job — it’s that important.”

It has been almost a month since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. More than 115 people are still unaccounted for on the island of 3.5 million.

Mendoza’s mother, Iris Mendoza, left Puerto Rico for Holyoke before the hurricanes hit and plans to return on Nov. 1. Melany Mendoza will accompany her with as many supplies a she can pack.

To ready packages for shipping, Mendoza and her husband, along with their son, Diego, and Iris, form an assembly line, sorting, packing, taping and addressing each box. Diego packs some of his own toys to send to his cousins. They sent a small satellite communicator to improve cellphone service, which has helped significantly. Everyone has been accounted for, but Mendoza worries about their ability to sustain themselves.

“There’s no planning here,” she said. “You might not have a job. You’ve used up all your savings to maybe run a generator and keep a small refrigerator. And in a few weeks where is that money going to come from?”

Gas prices are rising. Supermarket shelves are empty. Even those with money cannot use credit or debit cards without electricity or internet. Without running water, her relatives walk to a nearby stream to bathe and clean their clothes, returning with water they will later filter and drink.

Melany has over 40 family members in varying states of need. Choosing whom to help is hard to prioritize.

“Some people are not asking because they think some people are in greater need, but the need is everywhere,” she said.

Her family is from Añasco, a town of about 30,000 a three-hour drive from San Juan on the opposite side of the island. Much of their family lives along the same street in neighboring houses, which makes it easier for them to take care of one another.

“Puerto Rican culture is very family-oriented. People welcome everyone into their families. It’s like, you see someone who might be needing something, and they don’t even ask, they just come and bring you a plate of food,” Mendoza said.

Her sister Ivelisse Mendoza and brother-in-law Alexander Cruz work for the Department of Social Services and are among the few on the island still going to work. To do so, they had to wait in line overnight for fuel to drive there, where they salvaged files from a flooded office and tried to help families knocking on the door for help.

Last week, authorities began evacuating residents for fear the Guajataca Dam could break and flood surrounding communities. Mendoza communicated the danger to her family living 40 kilometers away.

Frequent heavy rain since the hurricanes has not helped matters. Mudslides and debris make recovery efforts harder, especially in remote villages.

“Things have been trickling out of San Juan, but not very fast, even to places like ours,” Mackler said. “This is not a rural town. This is a Northampton-sized town next to large university town, Mayagüez. These are not the really rural places, and people still aren’t getting anything.”

He said that while the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been helping recovery efforts, and the National Guard recently stepped up its response, the overall response has been disorganized and lacking. Instead of distributing food, FEMA responders were reportedly filing damage reports. The organization has been hiring locals to help with recovery efforts, a positive step, but applicants need internet and electricity to even apply for the positions.

Mendoza doesn’t hold out hope for government help.

“We are American citizens — we have rights,” she said. “People need to keep working hard from here because, even if most of your family is here and you only have a few family in Puerto Rico, we need to raise our voices for those who can’t right now because we have at least that power.”

Her 87-year-old grandmother Maria del Carmen Roman used to spend each night after the hurricanes sitting at her kitchen table with a single candle and was elated when Edual brought her a solar lamp. Her father, Jeremias Mendoza, relies on a dwindling supply of insulin, and runs an extension cord from the Mendozas’ generator-powered home to run a refrigerator to keep his medication cold.

“In some ways it feels ridiculous because all we have are these little boxes, and they feel kind of pathetic,” Mackler said. “I look at these little boxes and think, this is sad that this is going to make as big a difference as it does.”

Other organizations like Holyoke’s Nueva Esperanza also have been collecting disaster relief donations. They recently chartered a Spirit Airlines flight to deliver the supplies to San Juan.

“It’s hard to imagine a way out of this, and it’s scary to think of the next month or two if things don’t get better faster, and a lot faster,” Mackler said.

Mendoza said her family members in Puerto Rico have no long-term plans to relocate, but she is waiting with open arms for whoever needs to leave. She is concerned about her young niece and nephew being out of school for so long.

“It’s really heartbreaking seeing so many people trying to stay on the island because there’s a lot of people fleeing the island right now,” she said. “For those who are staying it feels like you’re going nowhere, like riding on a ... stationary bike.”

To help Mendoza's hurricane relief efforts, you can purchase items from the Amazon wishlist here.