Since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 and devastated the island, groups in the contiguous United States and Puerto Rico have been working to rebuild the communities and help affected individuals.
Among those groups is the Hispanic Center of the Lehigh Valley, which, with the help of Bethlehem Councilwoman Olga Negron and other leaders, hosted the Lehigh Valley United for Puerto Rico fundraiser Nov. 5 at the SteelStacks.
Leaders throughout the Lehigh Valley joined forces to assist friends and family that were affected by Hurricane Maria. Mary Colón, the interim executive director for the Hispanic Center of the Lehigh Valley, said the event raised funds and resources for those suffering in Puerto Rico, as well as those arriving in the Lehigh Valley from the island.
“It’s been almost two months already since the hurricane hit and people still do not have electricity,” Colón said. “Water comes and goes, and when it is available, it’s not fresh water. It’s not good to use or drink.”
The goal for the event was to gain support and awareness of the devastation that occurred on the island. They were hoping for anything they could get, whether that be monetary or clothing donations.
Almost 70 percent of the island still does not have electricity or access to running water, and some have lost loved ones.
Colón’s uncle, who was diagnosed with cancer two months ago, died two days after the hurricane.
“The doctors could not get to him and the transfusions he needed were not available at that point,” Colón said. “I’m not saying he died because of the hurricane, but it was an effect of it.”
Cindy Bello, a Lehigh Valley resident and writer for the Spanish newspaper, La Razón, went two and a half weeks without communicating with her family in Puerto Rico.
“We are relocating my 87-year-old grandfather here in December,” Bello said. “Puerto Rico is doing much worse than people think.”
Bello said the media coverage does not accurately portray the devastation that swept through Puerto Rico, and Negron said for Puerto Ricans in the Lehigh Valley, it is tough to completely understand the problem since they are not suffering like their relatives and friends on the island.
“It’s been a very critical time,” Colón said. “What the hurricane has shown is that when a disaster like this happens, it doesn’t matter what socioeconomic (status) you are. When it hits, it hits.”
With the efforts of families and the government, people have been able to escape the wreckage and come to the U.S. for assistance. Others lack the opportunity to leave the island.
In some cases, those who were able to leave were still left with nothing. Some families that attended the fundraiser had just arrived from Puerto Rico weeks ago. With the help of Negron and the Hispanic Center, these families were given clothing and other resources to get them back on their feet.
Negron herself struggled to continue her day-to-day life, knowing her family lacked everyday needs.
“I couldn’t even get myself to shower because while I have warm water, they have to bathe themselves with water bottles,” Negron said.
Brendon Laroche, an assistant pastor at Bethlehem’s Holy Infancy Church, was in attendance to show the parish’s support for the community. He said he has developed relationships with the community and that the parish as a whole suffered because individual families or homes have been hurt.
“It’s important as a community, especially in the South Side, to support each other,” Laroche said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re Puerto Rican or not.”
Many organizations across the Lehigh Valley and some from local high schools and universities have reached out to the Hispanic Center to offer assistance to those in need.
Colón said it’s been an overwhelming effort and is impressed with the Lehigh Valley’s unity.
“Look at that room today,” Colón said. “It is a mishmosh of people. We’ve seen everyone in the Lehigh Valley come today, from all capacities and ethnicity, coming out to say, ‘We are here, we are united.’”
Although not everyone has the resources to leave the island, Negron is happy people are staying in Puerto Rico to help others in need. Her brother, an electrician, stayed in Puerto Rico to help rebuild communities.
Negron and Colón recognize how devastating the hurricane has been to the island and that this one fundraiser is not going to be the end of their support to those in need.
“We know it’s going to take years to fix it,” Negron said, “and we will take years to do events like this to help them out.”