Puerto Rico destruction impacts locals, Red Cross spread thin

After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last week, a local resident is concerned for her family’s safety on the island.

Lorena Beniquez, of South Williamsport, said her father, Jose Beniquez, of South Williamsport, went to Puerto Rico to visit with extended family members.

Unfortunately, he became caught in the impact of the hurricane, along with many others in her family in the area of Isabela, Puerto Rico.

“He wants to go on vacation to see his family in Puerto Rico, and before you know it, he was in the middle of this horrific disaster,” she said.

She has been unable to reach him since the hurricane.

“I still have not made any contact with him. There’s still no cellphone service, barely any power,” she said. “We’re hoping for any bit of hope we can get through whatever family we can find.”

She said that some other family members in Florida had been able to make contact with those still on Puerto Rico and had verified his safety, so she believes him to be safe. She has just been unable to make contact herself.

“The difficulty is not only the fact that they don’t have cellphone service. They are going to have satellite phones, but how many people know phone numbers in this day in age? Certainly not my father; there’s no way he knows my phone number,” she said.

Part of the problem is the power outages across the island. She said some of the issue has been lack of information as San Juan, the capital and largest city, has gotten most of the news coverage. Isabela is on the opposite side of the island, located on the north western region.

“My whole family is in Isabela. There’s only about four to five members in the mainland. It’s very difficult sitting here by yourself without your family to turn to,” she said. “We’re heartbroken, the family’s heartbroken right now.”

No contact has been frustrating for her family, including her stepbrother who lives in Sacramento, California.

“We don’t understand why it’s taking so long for aid. It isn’t about politics right now; it’s about my family being able to survive after something so devastating has happened,” she said. “And there’s so much farther for them to go. My stepbrother — we’ve been calling each other — has been a really great support for me so far. Hearing his voice on the phone has been very comforting. If I could just hear my father’s voice on the phone, that would be even better.”

She hopes that the country will come together to help in the time of need.

“I just hope everybody is ready for what’s about to happen, post all these hurricanes,” she said. “As a country we need to come together and help all of these Americans. There’s only so much anybody can take in terms of having enough resources. Hopefully, they can get what they need immediately.”

Tom Szulanczyk, executive director of the North Central PA Chapter of the American Red Cross, said that the current situation is unique. Hurricane Maria marks the fourth hurricane in September, after Hurricane Harvey that impacted the Texas region at the beginning of the month and Hurricane Irma that impacted the Florida area in the middle of the month. Hurricane Jose reached hurricane strength briefly but caused minimal damage on the mainland.

“It is for the most part unprecedented. There were several very large hurricanes such as Andrew and of course Katrina, but having back to back hurricanes in different geographic locations put an unusual strain on all resources, including the Red Cross,” he said.

He said there have been several volunteers deployed from Lycoming County that have gone south, along with other volunteers from the region.

“Most are going to Atlanta and are awaiting transportation to Puerto Rico … It’s difficult to get into Puerto Rico now transportation wise,” he said. “It’s because of the wide spread power outage and uncertainty in what the conditions of airports are. We have several volunteers in Atlanta waiting to get there.”

With such a widespread area of impact from hurricanes, the Red Cross and other relief efforts face a new problem.

“There’s two things that we are concerned with. One is recruiting new volunteers and not overusing and burning out existing volunteers,” Szulanczyk said. “And then funding our disaster relief efforts.”

In order to help volunteer efforts, additional training services are being offered.

“We are creating new boot camps for volunteers … we’re fast tracking training those who want to volunteer to get the necessary training to deploy them. That’s helping quite a bit to recruit, train and deploy volunteers,” he said.

He said that the Red Cross offers a website in which people can register to tell family members they are safe. The address is www.redcross.org/safeandwell/.

“Folks in Puerto Rico can register, and family members stateside can go and see who registered,” he said. “At this point, that’s the only thing the Red Cross has to help communicate between two areas.”

Financial donations always are appreciated in helping volunteer organizations with their relief efforts.

“Because the Red Cross doesn’t have the capacity to transport goods and things, the best way for folks to help is through financial donations through the Red Cross,” Szulanczyk said.

Donation information can be found at www.redcross.org/donate/donation or by calling 1-800-435-7669.

The Red Cross also accepts text message donations. Simply text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10 to American Red Cross Disaster Relief.

To help out other volunteer organizations in relief disasters, visit the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster website at www.nvoad.org for other ways to volunteer and donate.