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Nov 20th
Miami Hears Puerto Rico’s S.O.S. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
November 2017

Locals mobilize to help islanders and new arrivals

A Pix_EleazarMelendez_11-17small Puerto Rican flag taped to the front door of the office suite was about the only indication of what was going on inside.

But at the temporary space within the historic DuPont Building in downtown Miami, graciously provided by owner Tilia Companies, a small group held those colors high, figuratively at least, as they brainstormed how to provide a better future, both for boricuas coming here and those trying to remake the battered island.

Disbursed as a community in Miami following the gentrification and displacement of Puerto Rican neighborhoods around Wynwood and the recent wave of migration that has overwhelmingly favored central Florida as a destination, Puerto Ricans in Miami have come out to find themselves since Hurricane Maria battered their ancestral homeland.

Lacking the equivalent of Little Havana’s Versailles or Hialeah’s 49th Street -- that is to say, an obvious place for the community to gather the way Cuban-Americans have over decades -- the Puerto Ricans in Miami came together in fluid hubs created overnight.

Downtown Miami, with its prime central location, was a logical place for one such hub. And it could play an increasing role as the mass exodus from the island becomes more apparent in the coming weeks and months.

Secured by Brickellite Kimberly Bentley, who has been doing philanthropic work in the Caribbean for years and is a former resident of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the DuPont Building suite was abuzz on a recent Friday with a powerhouse group trying to figure out how best to unite the local community to deliver support to those just arriving.

Puerto Rican lawyers discussed how to help law school students from the island to continue their studies here. A representative from a Puerto Rican CPA association and the chamber of commerce plotted out what to do for entrepreneurs coming here who may want to continue their business in a new market.

Preliminary ideas were floated for establishing a hotline that new Florida residents could access to connect with this kind of support. Discussion flowed regarding how to best work with existing social service nonprofits and major foundations.

It was only the latest coordination effort in what has become a growing movement in Miami to help the Caribbean, with professionals from every sphere volunteering time and know-how to ease the desperation of those arriving here and others still on the island.

Already an assorted group of the Puerto Rican diaspora had linked up with volunteers to set up massive relief operations that can collect and send emergency relief goods to Puerto Rico. While warehouses are not common anymore in downtown, hubs were set up throughout Wynwood, Doral, Miami Lakes, and the Little River section of Miami.

One of the most successful efforts has so far sent over three million pounds of aid and has ten million more pounds on the way, putting together the equivalent of a medium-scale logistics operation, charter airline, and medical relief service from scratch over the span of a few weeks.

Global Empowerment Mission, a nonprofit that has helped communities in disaster-torn areas throughout the United States, the Caribbean, and Asia for the past two decades, helps lead the effort there. So do Georgia-based We Do Better, which coordinates services to communities where the government has failed, and local volunteer super-network Third Wave Volunteers.

Dozens of other organizations, companies, and individual citizens are pitching in to help on the ground in Puerto Rico, rally more donations, and help defray the costs for the transportation of goods.

With the crisis in Puerto Rico exposing the people there, U.S. citizens all, to unthinkable levels of chaos and deprivation, it is work that has never been more needed in this country.

Back at the DuPont building, the focus was on extending the mission of assistance into three R’s: relief, resilience, and rebirth. In other words, not just providing immediate help to ease the misery in the Caribbean, but making sure people there find a way to come back that actually builds toward a sustainable future. And, of course, making sure that Florida opens its arms to receive the exodus that is coming here, which experts have put as high as 400,000 people over the next two years.

While the State of Florida and certain “blue-chip” nonprofit agencies like the Red Cross have set up receiving centers at the Miami and Orlando airports, more advanced work is needed. The government centers have been geared toward dealing with people who arrive absolutely penniless and homeless, as well as helping ease them through such procedures as getting a Florida ID.

But the tens of thousands likely to roll in every month will need a host of more advanced services. Families not used to Florida’s education system will need to determine where to send their children to school. Entrepreneurs displaced but willing to take a risk on starting again here need a supportive community to stand behind them. The sick and elderly, accustomed to going to certain doctors and clinics in Puerto Rico, will certainly be in better health if they can be aided in a way that does not disrupt their ongoing care.

That might sound overwhelming, but the reality on the ground justifies it. Early last month, this writer went to Puerto Rico to help on a medical aid mission and to solidify relationships with elected officials, as well as groups there that can distribute the aid coming in from Miami.

In Ponce, on the island’s southern coast, the regional emergency manager in charge of public health broke down in tears while explaining that she was spending her days ferrying critically ill patients from one hospital to another as their generators continued to fail, and that she wasn’t even able yet to address the root cause of the issue of failing power.

She acknowledged that there was no way to know yet how many people had actually died as a result of the storm and its immediate aftermath, given that their communication with community clinics and some rural hospitals was nonexistent.

Indeed, I missed part of the conversation in an attempt to get out an important text message, after I was told the only way to get mobile service in that part of town was to stand on a balcony on the fourth floor of Ponce City Hall and hope for a single 3G bar.

Puerto Rico faces an intense level of crisis fatigue and dysfunction right now, and any way we in Miami can help with that will be much valued.

 

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