I serve as a Student Attorney in the #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic at the University at Buffalo School of Law. Last week, the clinic was undergoing preparations to travel to Puerto Rico, including many hours of research and training. Being from the island myself, I traveled to Puerto Rico to establish contacts with our local partners and begin preparations on the island. It also gave me the opportunity to visit several municipalities and witness the disconnect in what people in the island’s metropolitan area believe is the actual conditions of things when compared to what is actually happening in the center of the island and other communities.
Last Friday, I set out to visit the Municipality of Naranjito, Puerto Rico, in the center of the island. Not knowing what I would find, I made my drive there early in the morning. I took my cousin with me to help document what we would find; he is a photographer. We also brought several cases of bottled water, in case we encountered people who needed it. We began driving uphill on one of the main roads in Naranjito. A few minutes later, to our right, we saw this road that had collapsed due to a landslide and had fallen down the mountainside. Beyond this collapsed road, we saw houses. Immediately, we were concerned. What about those people? Are they being helped?
We looked for a place to leave the car, and we walked around the collapsed road, making our way to what seemed to be around 10-12 houses. We stopped at the first house and we were greeted by Margarita Ferrer Rodriguez, the daughter of Blanca Rodriguez and Oscar Ferrer. She invited us in and the next face I saw was Blanca’s. Around her, two of her great grandchildren were playing. Soon after, her husband Oscar came outside, immediately grabbed my hand and gave me a hug. This man was very happy to see me. They both were.
They had not received any help because their house was inaccessible. The municipal government had a water truck route operating daily, but every time they would just drive by. I was even more surprised when they told me they had been without power or water service since Hurricane Irma, several days before Hurricane Maria. She believed no one from the local government knew of these houses. I almost broke down to tears when Blanca looked in my direction, leaned forward in her seat, and told me “I let you in not knowing who you were because really, it doesn’t matter who walks through the door, we just want help.”
We drove to the government building in the town center, surprisingly not too far from where the collapsed road began, and we met with one of the employees from the Office of Citizen Aid. She explained that they were aware of the collapsed road but had not heard fromthe people who lived in the houses beyond. We were appalled when we realized they just assumed they were fending off for themselves. After showing the people in the office the pictures of Blanca’s house and relating what I had learned from my visit, I somehow managed to get the number of the Mayor of Naranjito. I phoned him that afternoon. After a lengthy conversation, the mayor gave me assurance that the municipality would send employees beyond the collapsed road to visit Blanca and her neighbors and lend daily aid.
Much like Blanca, there are many out there in Puerto Rico who are simply waiting as the days go by. They sit inside their houses staring at the door during the day, and they try as best they can to sleep through the darkness at night, unsure of when someone will walk through the door. Four months have passed and there are still people out there facing these conditions and worrying about basic needs.
My visit to Naranjito four months after Hurricane Maria served as a very important reminder. While some people are worrying about the hours they lost at work due to Hurricane Maria, or how to appeal FEMA’s aid denial to repair their homes, there are still people out there simply worrying about making it through to the next day.
We cannot allow ourselves to move on while this need exists. We cannot allow ourselves to forget and carry on a normal life while there are people out there who might not have a drink of water for days. It is up to the rest of us to walk through that door and offer our service. I am proud to be part of #UBLawResponds, and to be able to walk through the door and help however I can.