Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Still worried about family, Tampa Bay Puerto Ricans ramp up relief effort

TAMPA — Brenda Irizarry is worried.

By Thursday afternoon, more than 24 hours after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico and tore across the island, the Tampa woman had not heard from any relatives who live there. But she had seen images of the devastation the storm left in its wake.

"I'm numb," Irizarry said. "It doesn't look like my home, and I'm scared for them."

Irizarry is among many Tampa Bay area Puerto Ricans channeling their nervous energy into relief efforts, collecting supplies to send to the island in the coming days and weeks. It keeps them busy between efforts to reach family across the divide created by the island's ravaged communication infrastructure.

FEARING THE WORST: Hillsborough Puerto Ricans worry about storm's impact.

"It's what I can do at this moment in time," said Oxalis Garcia, a family law and immigration attorney who lives in St. Petersburg and is hosting a similar collection drive at her Tampa law office. "I can't be there with them, I can't talk to them, so the only thing I can do is help not only them but as many people as possible."

Irizarry is working with retired U.S. Air Force Col. Evelio "E.J." Otero, Jr., a native Puerto Rican who led the establishment of the first ever U.S. Central Command Headquarters in Qatar.

"We're running this like a military operation," Otero said Thursday. "We don't want to just send stuff to Puerto Rico and there be nobody there to pick it up."

Earlier in the day, Otero traveled to Orlando to meet with officials in the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration office there to coordinate deliveries to airports on the island. Meanwhile, he was working with the U.S. Air National Guard to get a C-130 cargo plane to Tampa as soon as possible.

Organizers are also enlisting a private cargo plane to make a delivery trip from Tampa as early as Saturday. And a fleet of small private planes will also start making trips as soon as possible, Otero said.

Donations for the effort are being collected in a warehouse at Homeland Intelligence Technologies, a Tampa defense contracting firm owned by Irizarry's boyfriend, Richard Trela. Organizers are asking for provisions from baby wipes to non-perishable food to generators.

Fresh off a power outage caused by Hurricane Irma, many Tampa Bay-area residents probably won't have to use their imaginations to come up with items that Puerto Ricans need now. Irizarry helped kick off the relief effort by bringing supplies she bought before Irma and never used.

"I was going to take it to a shelter, and then this happened," she said.

But the island will also need to embark on a large-scale repair and rebuilding effort even before the power is restored. So Otero and Irizarry are asking for plywood and other lumber, generators and power tools. These larger-ticket items will be flown down on the cargo planes, while the smaller planes will carry water, toiletries, medicine and other lighter items.

Garcia, the Tampa attorney, was raised in Aguadilla, a city on island's west coast, and moved to Florida in 2010. She spoke to her parents after the storm but by Thursday afternoon still had not heard from her uncle, cousins or grandmother, who lives in Aguadilla and rode out the storm with her former daughter-in-law nearby.

"The house she went to stay in is in a low-lying area," Garcia said. "My concern is they got flooded."

Her mother went to stay with a sister in the capital San Juan. For five hours during the height of the storm, they had to take turns holding the front doors closed against Maria's fierce winds. One of the home's windows blew apart.

"She said it's the most horrible thing she's lived through," Garcia said.

By then, Garcia had already decided to start collecting supplies for the island. She posted an item Wednesday morning on Facebook and the effort has "snowballed" since then.

Otero was born and raised in the capital San Juan and left when he was 18, but still has many family members and friends there. By Thursday afternoon, he still hadn't heard from many of them. He was especially worried about a cousin who lives near a river in Trujillo Alto, a city south of the capital.

"That area was hit very hard," he said. "The rivers have been overflowing like crazy."

Otero ran emergency responses during his time in the military and he felt called to act.

"It's like something automatically clicked," he said. "This is like a military battle deployment. We're going to make sure good intentions accomplish what they intend to accomplish and aren't wasted."

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

   
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