Eight days after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, thousands of Americans living on the mainland have not heard from their loved ones on the island. Even elected officials do not know the condition of their friends and family.
Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, a Philadelphia native with relatives in Puerto Rico, is one of those people. She has only heard from a handful of loved ones, including a cousin who spent all day Wednesday trying to find cellphone reception. When she finally got through to Philadelphia, the 40-year-old woman cried wondering how her family will eat. They were running out of water and food, Quinones-Sanchez said.
“Her first reaction was ‘I gotta get off the island’ and my first reaction was ‘No, you’re 40. You’re young. You need to stay there,” the councilwoman said.
The full human toll of Hurricane Maria remains uncounted because relief efforts have barely started. Frustrated by the government’s slow response, Philadelphia City Council adopted a resolution Thursday urging immediate federal relief to support all aid efforts in Puerto Rico.
“What we’ve done is not nearly enough,” Mayor Jim Kenney said. “The White House response to this devastating storm is already past due. It’s important that we understand compassion.”
City officials have stopped short of sharing any contingency plans should thousands of Puerto Ricans seek refuge in Philadelphia or other parts of Pennsylvania. Kenney has repeatedly said he would open all of the city’s resources to victims, but no federal request been received.
“At this point during Hurricane Katrina, there were 20,000 troops and 40,000 national guards on the ground. We are nowhere near that,” Quinones-Sanchez said. “People here are going to be more frustrated because they can’t reach their loved ones.”
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Quinones-Sanchez worries Puerto Rico will experience a brain drain. Young people and those with financial means have already been fleeing the island’s crumbling economy and resettling in places like Philadelphia where opportunities are more abundant. But without those residents, Puerto Rico could soon descend into a remote outlet for the sick and elderly, Quinones-Sanchez said.
“That’s why it’s important the federal response provide hope so that people can stay and rebuild,” she said. “They’ve been in the middle of a fiscal crisis and 10,000 people were already voluntarily leaving the island every month prior to the devastation.”
As of Thursday, only six post offices are open on the entire island. More than 40 percent of residents do not have drinkable water. Ninety-seven percent of people are without cell service and 100 percent are without electricity.
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“There are people dying over there and that should stop right now,” State Rep. Bob Brady said. “We are the richest country … and we can help our own.”
Brady stood side by side with Kenney, Quinones-Sanchez and other elected city and state officials. Their united front is just one of the many ways they hope to push President Donald Trump into a more robust response. He has yet to visit Puerto Rico, and the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Frank will make her first visit to the island Friday.
Speaking in Philadelphia Thursday evening, Brady said fuel, gas and medicine is most needed to hurricane victims.
“What we need is boots on the ground to protect United States citizens,” he said. “They are United States citizens.”
Philadelphia is uniquely poised to help the Caribbean island. Puerto Ricans comprise 8 percent of the city’s total population and 75 percent of Philadelphia’s Latino community, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The push to help hurricane victims goes beyond politics.
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle bsaid he received call from one of these local residents yesterday. Her grandmother had died in the wake of Hurricane Maria and she wanted to know how this could happen on American soil. All Boyle could offer was his condolences, but that didn’t feel like enough, he said.
“This administration has not shown commitment … to the people of Puerto Rico,” he said. “We have to make sure for everyone else’s grandmother and family members that they do not experience a loss of life.”