Local effort aims to make a difference

It has been one month since Hurricane Maria made landfall, yet the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico still looms large in her wake.

Crashing onshore as a high-end category 4, the 10th most intense hurricane on record spawned in the Atlantic caused catastrophic damage, knocking out power lines, electrical grids and cell towers and wiping out roadways, houses and businesses. The true toll of the destruction and number of human lives lost is yet to be known.

For Dr. Edwin Roman, a local rehabilitation specialist originally from Puerto Rico who operates a private practice in Montoursville, the hours of Sept. 20 seemed slower than most as he waited for word that loved ones survived the hurricane’s direct hit.

Thankfully, they did.

In the following days, citizens in Puerto Rico waited for the mainland’s response as the recovery effort became a political football and football became political discussion. Supplies of food, water and power dwindled, or could not be distributed because of damaged infrastructure.

Relief has now come to the island, but recovery remains a challenge.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 78 percent of the island still is without power, 28 percent is without potable water and 13 percent of grocery stores still are closed.

“It’s not a pretty picture, let’s put it that way,” Roman said of the updates and descriptions he is receiving from family members living there. “Most are without electricity, few have running water. Communications right now within the island and to the mainland, are done by cellphone because a lot of the phone lines came down with the electrical lines.”

Roman had no idea when he accepted a fateful invitation to a business networking event as a guest of Wendy Weaver, owner of Weaver Wireless Consultants LLC, that his visit would spark a grassroots effort to help his native community.

As each guest shared a few words about their businesses, Roman took the opportunity to tell members of the BNI group about the plight of Puerto Ricans.

Inspired, Weaver sprung to action. She talked to Roman after the meeting, and both agreed: “There’s got to be something we can do.”

Driving to her meeting at Verizon Wireless, it dawned on her: The vast majority of people in Puerto Rico don’t have electricity or working landlines, but half of the island still has cell towers. If people had car chargers for their cellphones, they could recharge their cellphone’s batteries in their car, and continue to make calls.

And “Project Power Up Puerto Rico” was born.

Weaver, who worked at Verizon Wireless for 16 years prior to launching her own consulting business, had a vast number of contacts in the community who were ready and eager to help.

She created a flyer asking people to pitch in their old car chargers and other cellphone accessories or purchase a new one at 5 Below or Dollar General and set out drop-off boxes at participating partners such as Julie’s Coffee and Repeats Used Clothing store.

Within three days, Weaver and Roman collected 100 dual chargers — 90 of them donated by Micro 1 Computer Center, a computer and technology sales and support provider on Penn Street.

“The dual chargers allow for two phones to be plugged in, so with Micro 1 Computer’s donation, we were literally ready to send our first shipment of chargers that had the capacity to charge 200 phones at the same time,” Weaver said.

Overcoming the logistical challenge of how to get the donations to the island and how to get them directly to people in need, Weaver again was amazed by how quickly a solution manifested.

Connecting with Todd Snyder, founder of 4GCommunity.Org, a nonprofit organization that provides wireless and information technologies to people and communities in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Weaver learned he was traveling back and forth to the battered island to help with the recovery effort.

“I felt like God helped put all the pieces together,” Weaver said. “It just happened spontaneously.”

Weaver and Roman are planning to send their next shipment the first week of November.

“Something small like a car charger can make a big difference for a family that needs to depend solely on their cell phone for communication right now,” Roman said. “It can be a lifesaver for somebody that needs care right away.”

Weaver agreed: “It just feels good to be able to do something, even if it’s a small something.”

Project Power Up Puerto Rico is collecting chargers and cell phone accessories– old, used and new — at participating drop-off locations including Julie’s Coffee, 33 W. Third St., and Repeats Used Clothing, 1762 E. Third St., now through November.