Orlando's Puerto Rican community gathers donations for hurricane relief

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PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Karen Díaz de Suarez's hands were trembling Sunday when she finally got the call from her brother that he and his family had survived Hurricane Maria.

For days after the storm decimated buildings, flooded homes and knocked out power for the entire island, Díaz de Suarez waited anxiously to hear from her seven siblings who live in Puerto Rico.

"For five days, I couldn't sleep," she says. "I didn't eat because I thought, 'How could I eat while my family is struggling?' Yesterday, when my brother called me, I got so nervous because I was afraid the call would drop. I just started crying when I heard his voice. He says it sounded like a monster, like the winds were yelling."

While Díaz de Suarez waits to hear from four of her siblings, she and dozens of Central Florida residents were gathering food, water, monetary donations and other supplies in Orlando to send to Puerto Rico. The organization Coordinadora de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Ayuda (CASA) was collecting donations Monday at Acacia El Centro Borinqueño, 1865 N. Econlockhatchee Trail. As they worried about their loved ones, Orlando's Puerto Rican community stacked piles of bottled water, organized canned goods, separated clothing and collected heaps of pampers for the 3.4 million American citizens on the U.S. territory.

"I feel better helping," Díaz de Suarez says. "If not, I would be at home stuck on the news and feeling desperate. Here, I feel like I'm helping my people. Even if the help doesn't get to my family, at least I'm still helping Puerto Rico."

The devastation from Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico on the brink of a "humanitarian crisis" according to Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. The New York Times reports the governor urged President Donald Trump and Congress to take action to help island like they would any other state affected by a hurricane. The island is predicted to be without electricity for four to six months.

"Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, can turn into a humanitarian crisis," Rosselló said, according to the Times. "To avoid that, recognize that we Puerto Ricans are American citizens; when we speak of a catastrophe, everyone must be treated equally."

PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
CASA was already collecting supplies to help Puerto Rico and other Caribbean states affected by Hurricane Irma when Maria hit Puerto Rico. Jimmy Torres-Vélez, an organizer for the group, says since CASA began organizing to collect donations for the island, hundreds of volunteers have been showing up to El Centro Borinqueño to volunteer throughout the day and night.

"The part that has most impressed me is the number of volunteers," he says. "There's never been less than 50 people here working. We have to throw them out at midnight because they want to keep working. On Saturday night, a truck came from Deltona with supplies and we had to unload it at that time. One of the teens helping us said, 'Let's do it. This is nothing compared to what the people in Puerto Rico are dealing with.'"

The struggle now for Torres-Vélez is getting the donations to the Puerto Rican people quickly. Shipping containers sent on boats to the island haven't been unloaded because some ports remain closed. CASA is also running out of room at El Centro Borinqueño for the donations and is trying to find a warehouse.

"We have a good problem, but still, a problem," he says. "We're trying to find alternatives to store the donations. This is a new experience, so we're still all learning. Nobody has done something to this extent for Puerto Rico."

As of Tuesday morning, CASA said in a statement that it was only accepting monetary donations and volunteers for now because they're temporarily closed for shipping. Torres-Vélez called for business leaders and elected officials who haven't shown up for the Puerto Rican community to reach out and help in any way they can.

"We're suffering here for a place to put donations," he says. "We should be able to call our people and they should come with answers. If other people have a problem they can close the Amway Center, but they cannot get us a place to do this? We are asking for help, but we're not getting the help we're expecting. We need more from them."



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