When Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico last year it left a path of devastation and need that still lingers today. It was the worst natural disaster to ever hit the island — an island whose aging infrastructure and political problems made it impossible to be prepared for such a raging storm.
Hundreds of people lost their lives during the hurricane, with winds peaking at 175 mph when it slammed into Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was still reeling from Hurricane Irma, which had made landfall just two weeks earlier. Thousands of people were already without food and electricity when Maria hit and Puerto Rico suffered island-wide loss of communications.
The devastation was compounded by the slow and seemingly reluctant efforts on the part of the United States government to send aid and relief for the citizens of the island.
But in Madison and around Dane County, a group of people with ties to the island organized the Puerto Rico Relief Fund of South Central Wisconsin, a fund designed to address varying needs that people on the island were experiencing in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The fund, headed by Joe Maldonado, was started the day after Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico. It started out as a small, grassroots group of people who wanted to help get the ravaged island’s citizens the relief and help they needed. But Maldonado told Madison365 that before he knew it, he had over 40 people who had joined the relief fund effort.
The idea was to have proposals for funding that would cover the needs people were experiencing. The relief fund wound up funding nine proposals covering everything from health outcomes to energy solutions for Puerto Rico.
“We were filling a need that should have been filed structurally,” Maldonado told Madison365. “When the fund opened we knew we needed to address systemic things like health food, energy. We wanted to make sure there’s strong systems put in place.”
As Maldonado listed some of the proposals that had been funded and some of the needs that people on the island were experiencing, it became jarring how many things people take for granted every day. Maldonado explained the history of Puerto Rico’s battles with bad politics, colonialism and the outdated systems that exponentially added to the woes of trying to rebuild from Hurricane Maria.
But, as the Puerto Rico Relief Fund began to grow in scope, Maldonado said the outpouring from the Madison community was overwhelming.
“The response we got from the Madison community was huge,” he said. “We had people hosting events for us. We had people asking how they can help. To me, that means a lot. When there’s people who want to give, that means change is going to happen. ”
The Puerto Rico Relief Fund itself raised over $98,000 with over $70,000 of that having been raised between September 2017 and January 2018.
Last week Friday marked the official closing of the Relief Fund in a ceremony at Centro Hispano on Madison’s south side.
Galleries and exhibits were on display showing 11 projects (nine of which were funded) and what they are achieving on the island, and a video was shared showing one of the trips to Puerto Rico and interviews with several people affecting.
Dr. Jim Tinjim, a professor at UW, created a solar energy project with students from Engineers Without Borders. The solar energy project, called Solar Para Niños (Solar for Children) will place solar panels at a non-profit shelter in Puerto Rico for abused children.
Dr. Tinjim will help train students to install the panels, which are expected to lower energy costs by nearly $500 per month, which will enable the shelter to have more finances available to help the children in need that are being placed there by the Department of Families.
One other project that was funded was by CUNA Mutual in conjunction with La Alianza de medicos al rescate, a health organization in Latin America that uses volunteers to provide health education and assistance. The project was to bring air filtration systems to Puerto Rico and teach people how to install and use them.
Art restoration, teaching people how to grow food in the wake of so much vegetation being destroyed, providing vaccinations for kids — many different projects were part of the work the Puerto Rico Relief Fund of South Central Wisconsin helped provide. All over the island were the fingerprints of the group Maldonado formed.
“One of the things that we learned over time is that our role really is as a connecter,” Maldonado told Madison365. “A few of us went down to the island last month and connected with the people that applied and different people that we funded and found out that a lot of them didn’t even know each other. Bigger than just our scope of work is that on the island, immediately after Maria, any person who lived there really just reached out and gave a hand to their neighbors. I’ve gotten countless stories of folks who immediately, within hours of Maria happening, got in trucks and picked people up or fixed electric posts. Just giving, giving, giving of themselves.”
With so many connections between Madison and Puerto Rico, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the community here stepped up to help. But, Maldonado said, even though the fund is closing now doesn’t mean the work is finished.
“The work that’s being done is really, really vital. We wanna keep this work going,” he said.