Local Heralds FDNY for Finding Her Mom After PR Hurricane

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For seven days after Hurricane Maria ripped its fury through Puerto Rico on that apocalyptic Wednesday, September 20, making landfall as a powerful Category 4 storm with 155-mph winds, Rockaway Park resident, Vilma Diaz did not hear from her 80-year-old mother. “Though miles apart physically, my mom and I are really close. I was used to speaking to her every day, sometimes even twice a day. So with no way to communicate with her, can you imagine my desperation?

“I was glued to the news depicting images of the utter destruction, people left homeless with no power, phone service, clean water, food, the rising death toll. I was imploding and exploding, ‘Is my mom okay?” an emotional Diaz said. Her mom, Delores, (affectionately called Lola), lives by herself in Hatillo, a municipality located on the northern coast of the island, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, one hour away driving from Aguadilla to the west and the island’s capital, San Juan to the east.

However, Diaz was finally able to speak with her mom on the phone. How this was arranged, some may describe as a miracle.

“My cousin told me that she knew of some FDNY firefighters going down to help with disaster relief. I felt this was my last hope and gave them my mom’s address. I had no idea if they would be able to get to, much less find Hatillo, but I prayed and hoped they would find her,” Diaz said.

Then this past Sunday, October 1 Diaz got a call from one of the firefighters. They found her mother, Lola, alive.

“One of the firefighters was a medic who said that my mom and her neighbors were fine and in good spirits. Though many of the side roads were impassable because of flooding and a lot of debris strewn, they were able to find her street.

“He checked my mom’s vitals, and said that she was okay. I was just so filled with gratitude that they found her,” Diaz said.

That relief was solidified when Diaz got to hear her mother’s voice. “My mother is really resilient and was her stubborn self. She said that the neighbors really banded together to help each other before, during and after the storm. The fire medic had me laughing when he said that my 80-year-old mom wanted to go stand in line for food. He said that he told her that with the heat and her age, it was not a good idea. So they went in her steed, of which she was not too pleased,” Diaz laughed.

According to Diaz, her mother lives in a neighborhood where most of the residents are like herself, retirees from NY. One neighbor has a generator in her home, and everyone goes there to charge their phones and store food in the refrigerator. However, one of the biggest problems is the lack of gas.

Diaz said, “One of my mom’s vecinos (translated to ‘neighbors’) said that people would stand in line for hours to fill up on gas. At first you weren’t allowed more than $10 in gas and then it was increased to $20. However, now people are afraid they won't be able to get gas to fuel their cars and generators. Also folks have no idea when they will get power and are afraid of food shortages. Only one supermarket, Amigos is operating, letting in only 10 people at a time. Most frighteningly is almost everyone is out of work. Many businesses are closed, where the majority of locals are employed, such as a McDonalds and Walmart, which were destroyed in the storm. If people can’t work, where are they going to get money to buy basic necessities like food and gas?” Diaz said.

Puerto Rico’s lack of power stems from the destruction of the country’s transmission lines, which carry electricity from power plants to distribution centers in the cities. More than 80 percent of these cables are out, and practically all of the power lines that carry electricity from distribution centers to local business and residences have been destroyed.

Another problem is that most of the island’s power plants generate two thirds of their power from burning oil, of which 100 percent is imported. The island needs electricity to pump water into homes, a critical need as it is difficult to find clean water to drink and bathe. Catapult that with the dire situation with Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which even before Maria was on the verge of collapse, due to bankruptcy issues and technicians who left the island in droves to pursue more lucrative jobs on the U.S. mainland.

This is where Rockaway residents Walter Meyer and his wife, Jennifer Bolstad are stepping in to help with their Resilient Power Puerto Rico (RPPR), an initiative with the Coastal Marine Resource Center (CMRC), building on the model of CMRC's successes with the Power Rockaways Resilience project after Hurricane Sandy.

RPPR launches with targeted efforts to deliver solar generators to the most under-served areas as a relief measure to get communities powered up and back in contact, with a planned evolution into long-term disaster-preparedness and clean-energy solutions to impact the entire island.

According to Denise Ofelia Mangen, an educational designer and technologist at New York University (NYU), who took leave from her NYU post to volunteer with RPPR, the first phase will be to bring as much energy to as many people as possible, using a proven, mobile solar-electric system that targets the hardest-hit and most remote communities first, especially for charging up devices, boosting communications, filtering water and funneling energy to doctor’s offices, clinics with immediate triage and food establishments.

“In the second phase, our goal is to deliver 100 mobile solar-electric kits by the end of 2017. In each of the 78 municipalities we will install solar systems and train local residents during the installation. In Phase 3, which is expected to extend through 2021, we will work to promote solar electric energy for every household on the island. This plan is a coordinated effort to address the vulnerabilities of the island's existing, fossil-fueled electrical infrastructure and instead provide clean production of energy that allows each household to be self-reliant,” Mangen said.

Meyer and his team will be leaving this Friday for Puerto Rico to start work. For more information on donating or volunteering with RPPR, visit: resilientpowerpr.org/resilientpr/

As for Diaz, she is absolutely grateful for the firefighters who stayed the course and found her mom, Lola. “I plan to go to PR later on this month and convince my mom to return to New York with me. Knowing her, it may be a fight. As for the firefighters, upon their return, I am going to treat them to a special dinner. They are truly New York's finest,” Diaz said.

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