Sunday, December 10, 2017
Tampa Bay Weather

Puerto Ricans in Tampa Bay wait with dread as Hurricane Maria approaches island

TAMPA — As Hurricane Maria swirled in the Atlantic Ocean, Sarykarmen Rivera got a call from her parents in Puerto Rico. They had an ominous message.

We think it's going to make a direct hit here.

"I try to be the strong daughter, but I have to admit I started sobbing when I hung up the phone," Rivera, a Riverview journalist and on-air personality for iHeart Radio's Rumba 106.5, said Tuesday about the weekend phone call. "I told my husband that this is the big one that people have been talking about for years."

As Maria takes aim at Puerto Rico, tens of thousands of anxious family members and friends in the Tampa Bay area are watching from afar with a feeling of dread.

Hillsborough County alone is home to more than 111,000 Puerto Ricans, second only to Orange County in Florida. There are more than 1 million Puerto Ricans living in the state.

Anxiety levels have surged since Maria strengthened into a monster. As of Tuesday evening, the "potentially catastrophic" storm was expected to make landfall on Puerto Rico's southern coast early today as a Category 4 or 5, with winds as high as 160 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The forecast path shows the storm cutting across the center of the island.

It would be the first time a storm of such intensity hit the U.S. commonwealth in 85 years and less than two weeks after Hurricane Irma struck a glan­cing blow by tracking just off the island's northern coast.

Maria looks far more dangerous. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has declared a state of emergency, urging residents to prepare for "a force and violence that we haven't seen for several generations." And President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration for the island to aid with federal assistance.

"I'm scared for everybody over there," said Tatiana Cox-Lopez, an Oldsmar resident who was born in Puerto Rico and, like her husband, still has family and friends there. "Nobody in our generation has experienced a Category 5 and don't understand the magnitude of this. They think, 'We did okay with Irma,' but Irma didn't cut through the island."

Cox-Lopez's octogenarian grandparents live in San Juan and only recently got their power and water services restored after Irma. Cox-Lopez offered to fly them to Florida, but her grandmother refused. She didn't want to make the three-hour trip. Other friends and family also declined the offer.

"We have a lot of faith, but you've got to prepare," Cox-Lopez said. "Prayers alone are not going to save you. You have to help yourself."

But less than two weeks after Irma, preparing is harder in Puerto Rico. Shelves emptied ahead of that storm are still empty. Gas, plywood, food and water are in short supply. And Maria strengthened rapidly, leaving precious little time to get ready.

"They're already crippled," said Aileen Rodriguez, vice president of Tampa Hispanic Heritage Inc. and a native of San Juan who still has friends and family on the island. "They didn't have a lot of prep time and they're still in recovery from Irma, so it's a double whammy."

Puerto Ricans watching from afar are taking some hope from the many concrete structures on the island. But forecasters are calling for life-threatening flooding and storm surge.

Rivera, the Riverview radio personality, is worried about a river and creek near her parents' home in Guayama, a city on the island's southern coast. Her grandmother lives in a nursing home even closer to the creek.

Rivera has vivid childhood memories of the devastating flooding that happened during Hurricane Hortense in 1996.

"I remember the river sweeping houses away," she said.

Along with the mainlanders' dread comes a feeling of helplessness. During and immediately after the storm, they can do little but compulsively check social media and try to connect by phone to hear whether their loved ones are safe.

Once the hurricane passes, though, they will spring into action. Care packages are one way to help.

"I'll call my brother and say, "What can I send you?' " said Maribel Garrett, assistant dean of student services for Hillsborough Community College's Ybor City campus, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to Florida in 1992. "It's just one of those things where we'll cross that bridge when we come to it and see how bad it is, and hopefully how bad it isn't."

Elizabeth Lorenzo, a senior at the University of South Florida and a member of the Boricua Student Association, said that group is already brainstorming about ways to raise money to help the island after the storm passes. The group in the past had success selling traditional Puerto Rican fare on campus, including the Lorenzo family's homemade pasteles, flaky pastries stuffed with meat.

Lorenzo's father lives in Rincon, a town on the island's western coast, and plans to evacuate his wooden home and ride out the storm with his mother, who lives in a sturdier home in the same town. She spoke with him Tuesday to tell him she loved him and to make sure he had what he needed to ride out the storm.

"Puerto Ricans in general are really resilient people," she said. "I know we'll be able to get through it."

But local Puerto Ricans say they are also members of a larger Latino diaspora in the Tampa Bay area that rallies to help one another in times of need.

"We're all in this together," Rivera said. "Now is the time to bring it home to Puerto Rico."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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