When Hurricane Maria, a deadly Category 5 hurricane, devastated Puerto Rico five years ago, the Puerto Rico Relief Fund of South Central Wisconsin rallied together to raise nearly $100,000 for relief efforts throughout the island in support of several grassroots organizations focusing on housing, domestic violence prevention, food security, access to safe water, and renewable energy.
Five years later, members of that group are working to raise money for their homeland again after the recent Hurricane Fiona dumped historic amounts of rain, knocked out power across the island, and caused severe flooding, mudslides and loss of running water. More than 800,000 Puerto Rican residents have registered with FEMA to request individual assistance.
They are doing things a little differently this time because the need is so immediate.
“This time, unlike the first time we did fundraising, we decided to actually connect with organizations that we have worked before and some other organizations that are doing the groundwork out on the island, and just have direct donations going to those organizations,” Veronica Figueroa tells Madison365. Figueroa is a native of Puerto Rico who had been the project manager of the Puerto Rico Relief Fund of South Central Wisconsin and is helping to lead the fundraising for Puerto Rico now. “We’d rather get the money there now than to wait for us to fundraise and then do the whole process with gathering money and delivering those checks.”
Puerto Rico has struggled to rebuild housing and crucial infrastructure in the five years since it was hit by Hurricane Maria, which made Hurricane Fiona especially devastating for some.
“Since Maria, many things haven’t really progressed much for Puerto Rico, especially in the infrastructure. The needs are greater now and they need the money fast,” Figueroa says. “So we decided to connect with those organizations and see what their needs are in terms of what happened recently, and then just have people donate to the organization of their choice, and support Puerto Rico that way. So that’s what we’re doing right now — continuing to monitor this situation and continuing to support in any way we can.”
The website Hurricane Fiona from Madison to Puerto Rico links to eight organizations that are lending a hand on the island in various ways.
“There are several different organizations that are doing several different things from housing to food security to working with the elderly. So we kind of tried to pick those that were most impacted and try to partner with those organizations that are really doing the work,” Figueroa says.
The total death toll for Hurricane Maria five years ago was almost 3,000 with the power going out throughout the island. Now, after Hurricane Fiona, more than 100,000 customers in Puerto Rico are still waiting for power to be restored after more than two weeks.
“So it’s the same situation with the power – some people were 13 days without power and some people are still without power,” Figueroa says. “In Isabela, which is the town I come from, the mayor took it upon himself to get a whole bunch of retired electricians and just started repairing the electricity for the town instead of waiting for LUMA [energy] that is absolutely doing nothing for the island. And so some people are still without electricity and some people are still without water, as well.”
Figueroa has talked with her family and friends back in Puerto Rico and she says everybody is OK. “They are in Isabella, in the countryside, and that didn’t get hit as bad. For people on the coast, I can’t say the same because they got flooded and they got hit the hardest.”
President Biden has promised $60 million in storm aid, although the damages from Hurricane Fiona have been estimated to be “in the billions.” Grassroots groups, like the one in Madison, have had to fill in gaping holes in the government’s response and recovery effort.
“It’s very hard to be here in Madison while this is going on in Puerto Rico and there is a sense of hopelessness for me because I’m here and not there,” Figueroa says. “Many of us have already made donations to multiple organizations that are there, but just having family there and not being able to really provide in a way that I would love to provide and to support my people in the way that I support others here in this community is hard.
“It just breaks my heart to see that we continue after [Hurricane] Maria to struggle and then five years later really struggling even more after [Hurricane] Fiona because catastrophes continue to happen to the island and the corruption continues to increase,” she adds. “Just the fact that we are forgotten by the greatest nation in the world is disturbing, too. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and I don’t feel like they are getting the support that they need. It just breaks my heart. But I’m hopeful, too. Especially, when I see people raising money for Puerto Rico on their own. That’s heartwarming.”