Just 19 days after Hurricane Maria catastrophically destroyed the infrastructure of Puerto Rico, Katherine Gonzalez Valentin, a former FBA national and chapter leader and attorney in San Juan, shares her firsthand account of conditions on the island. A legislative update on federal disaster aid immediately follows as well.
If you have ever been to Puerto Rico or seen it in pictures or in a commercial, you would not believe your eyes if you saw it on day 19, not to mention on day one, after hurricane Maria hit us with its Category 4 force winds at 155 miles per hour. The unwelcomed guest visited our entire Island for approximately 24 hours without rest on September 20, 2017. One does not really know what the warning that there would be “effects of catastrophic proportions” means until you step out of your concrete home turned fortress to see what at first sight seemed uncanny, nightmarish, a vision, to say the least. After wiping uncontainable tears (you can ask any man or woman who experienced this), one could not escape day one’s reveal: devastation all around us. In my case, the shaved foliage around my brother’s house exposed a sea-like, brown and wide river that threatened neighborhoods and nearby roads. Several concrete posts broken in half like toothpicks and turned overnight assailants of rooftops of family homes, pieces of communication towers posing as occupants of a suburban road, two satellite dishes of a major cable company destroyed in half, cargo trailers and aluminum buildings flipped and torn into pieces and spread like Legos in a living room floor were just some of the sights of days two and three after Maria’s fury left us.
Such grim landscape remained similar, some areas worse than others, as I headed down the main highway toward the capital city of San Juan shortly after the storm to check on other family members and my own home. One could now see as far as one could never before see through this unfamiliar landscape of fallen, distorted and broken trees, street signs and billboards. The knot of despair in my stomach tightened when I drove by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico in Old San Juan and saw firsthand how it had been destroyed just like the historic Luis Muñoz Rivera Park next to it. For decades both had flaunted their strength and recreational spirit, respectively. Now their fragility was exposed. Not even the oldest and most robust trees that had served as their gallant decor survived. Instead, they became enemies of our highest house of justice and those perfect playgrounds, leaving them looking like war zones. Nature had ordered both justice and joy to wait.
Driving on the highway the sight of long lines of cars parked on the shoulder and people talking on their cellphones or searching for a signal is unsettling on day 17. The limited access to local and national news, the Internet and communication means has kept many of us living in the Island somewhat incommunicado or unexposed to the extent of the pervasive devastation in rural towns and areas farther from the more developed cities. My perspective, having endured the hurricane under sweat and water but protected by a concrete roof and shutters, was transformed when my own coworkers and friends spoke about flying doors and glass windows; a husband thrown to the yard by the wind; beds, personal belongings, cars and furniture in ruins; houses under water and lack of food. Still today, in many places here recovery efforts are just beginning. Some have not even received help. The majority of the people of Puerto Rico continue to be in need, whether it is for water, medicines, food, batteries, clothing, a roof, fuel or power generators, to name a few examples. Any news stating the contrary is not a reflection of our reality.
The above notwithstanding, adversity has two faces. One is gentle and prosperous. As communications, water and energy are slowly reestablished; as fuel becomes available and the wait in long lines for gas or food turns into a more tolerable ordeal; as children play outside and long-time neighbors who never met become friends; and as individuals, the private sector and governments lend a helping hand, the hopes, efforts and commitment of the people of Puerto Rico grow. In times of distress, empathy abounds here. Our infrastructure is fractured but it will be rebuilt. Our beauty has been blemished but you can already see the regrowth of flowers, trees and communities. We are coming together and working together to help Puerto Rico and those with greater needs.
It will take a lot of effort to reconstruct the Island but, like the people of Louisiana, Texas and Florida, we also are the kind of U.S. citizens known to have the resilience to recover and come back stronger. While it will take patience and time, rapid and continued action is necessary and we cannot do this alone. We need to get our people back to work, get them homes, get them food and make them safe.
Please, keep us in your thoughts and prayers. In these dire times, any contribution to help our recovery is valuable. There are many ways to so, such as, supporting Puerto Rico relief initiatives by any government agency, foundations and the private sector, urging your congressional representatives to support federal aid for Puerto Rico, continuing to invest and doing business in Puerto Rico as opportunities are flourishing now in a variety of industries and coming back to visit in a near future. We will always be the Island of Enchantment!
Former FBA Director
Puerto Rico Chapter Past President
Chair Labor & Employment, Ferraiuoli LLC
The White House on October 4 asked Congress to approve $29 billion in disaster aid to cover ongoing hurricane relief and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, Texas, Louisiana and Florida and to pay federal flood insurance claims. It includes $13 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The government is spending almost $200 million a day for emergency hurricane response. In September, Congress approved a $15.3 billion aid package that combined community development block grant rebuilding funds with emergency money for cleanup, repair and housing in response to the devastation brought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, before Maria slammed into Puerto Rico.
How to Help Victims of Hurricane Maria
SOLACE Helping our Legal Community—Gift Card Drive
Our national SOLACE initiative continues to bring our members who are in need together with other members who are able to offer assistance. SOLACE stands for “Support of Lawyers/Legal Personnel—All Concern Encouraged.” SOLACE allows the FBA legal community to reach out in small but meaningful and compassionate ways to FBA members and those related to them in the legal community. FBA SOLACE is sponsoring a Gift Card Drive; Visa (non-specific store type) gift cards are encouraged. Gift cards will be distributed to our members and to the legal community in need in Puerto Rico. Please send gift cards to: SOLACE, Federal Bar Association, 1220 North Fillmore Street, Suite 444, Arlington, VA 22201. Purchase a gift card online and ship it directly to the FBA.
Foundation of the FBA’s Hurricanes Disaster Relief Fund
The Foundation of the Federal Bar Association is committed to serving the needs of FBA members and offering support to the citizens of Puerto Rico whose lives have been affected by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria. To that end, the Foundation has created a Hurricanes Disaster Fund to support FBA Chapters as well as legal aid and other organizations working to provide legal representation and education to impacted communities. Donate today!