Individuals locally and in Puerto Rico are working to help the elderly on the island recover from Hurricane Maria’s devastation and prepare for any potential storms as another hurricane season begins.
More than 640,000 residents 65 and older have remained in Puerto Rico, and nearly half of them have physical disabilities, according to information from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration. FEMA has released information on storm preparedness (https://bit.ly/2sF8dht) to raise awareness of the needs of the elderly on the island so family and neighbors can assist with pulling together the resources they need if another major storm were to hit.
For an elderly person who lives alone in his or her own home, FEMA recommends that family or friends assemble a preparedness kit that includes one gallon of water per day; nonperishable foods high in B vitamins and low in sodium; blankets and extra clothing; medical and insurance documents; an emergency contact list; cash; and spare batteries and medical equipment.
In such areas that were hard hit by Hurricane Maria, such as Yubucoa, thousands remain without power, according to Maria Delgado of Spencerport, who was born in the town that is located in the eastern part of Puerto Rico. She has mailed more than 172 packages to help people in need on the island through her “One Box at a Time” project, she said. She is working with two churches, one a large Catholic church, to deliver the boxes to island residents, many of whom are elderly, Delgado noted.
Government officials estimate that 5,000 homes are still without power, but Javier Camacho of Toa Bajo, near the capital of San Juan, believes the real number is two to three times higher. A former software developer, Camacho is now working to help resolve the power issues through solar generators that he is making out of recycled materials and delivering to Puerto Rico homes, many with older residents.
Some of the people he helps were without power even before Hurricane Maria hit, Camacho added.
Even so, he said that the poverty he has seen throughout the island post-Hurricane Maria is like nothing he has witnessed in his lifetime, which is why he felt a spiritual need to do something to serve the needy. According to U.S. Census information (https://bit.ly/2Nr7Sst), the poverty rate in Puerto Rico is 43.5 percent, and people ages 65 and older make up nearly 20 percent of the population.
Through his project, Camacho said he has met residents who lost their pensions because of Puerto Rico’s financial struggles or saw savings disappear because of drops in the stock market. Others can’t afford to live on the small pensions they still receive, he noted.
“They are mostly people past their 60s and 70s who live by themselves,” he said of the residents he is serving. “They’re my biggest focus, especially this generation because they’re so used to doing stuff with their own hands. … Now, they’re so old and supposed to be taken care but (family members) are not doing the job they’re supposed to.”
By having solar generators, these residents won’t have to choose between eating and electricity, which some have told him they had to do, Camacho said. He receives donations through a YouTube channel (https://bit.ly/2zurTuW) he created to post videos about how he’s building the generators. The donations come from all over the world, including Panama, Australia and the United States. Recently, he received a pallet of used lithium batteries from a New Jersey company called Battery Hookup that was born after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. He also has received in-kind or monetary support from Puerto Rican-based businesses and groups, including Dynamic Solar Solutions, Puerto Rican Relief Fund and Farmacia Vanga.
Through her Pretty Girl Productions boxing company, Mercedes Vazquez-Simmons of Rochester has been working to help families on the island. Through contacts from a gym for youths that she operates in Vieques, she has been able to find and put Rochester residents in touch with elderly relatives.
“Most were seniors with medical conditions,” she said. “I feel like it’s not enough (help) because there’s so many people without power.”
For the families she reaches that have no electrical power or WiFi access, she has used a satellite phone to reach relatives on the U.S. mainland.
The vulnerability of these elderly populations was evident, as she and other volunteers had to traverse blocked roads to bring backpacks of supplies to them, Vázquez-Simmons said. In other central mountainous areas, the roads were wiped out and she had to hike to reach residents in need of help, she explained. Vázquez-Simmons has provided supplies to about 75 families thus far.
“Most (of the elderly) don’t leave because of the money … or they don’t have family in the U.S.,” said Vazquez-Simmons. “A woman told me she was terrified to get on a plane. She (had) never left the island and felt she would be abandoning the island.”
The transition for the 83-year-old aunt of a Rochester relative has been challenging, including adjusting to the language and food at her Rochester nursing home. But Nidia Montalvo found herself in a situation where she was forced to move her aunt, Felicita Figueroa-Rosado, out of Puerto Rico for her own safety, she said. Her experience illustrates the need for Puerto Ricans on the mainland to check on elderly relatives, Montalvo added.
During a visit last winter to surprise her aunt, Montalvo found Figueroa-Rosado lying in the dark on the floor of a locked bathroom in the home of her daughter. Her aunt had lost her house during the hurricane.
“I was supposed to go somewhere else,” Montalvo said of the spur-of-the-moment decision to see her aunt. “This was all God intended.”