The relief effort at the Sunset Park Disaster-Relief Collection Center in Brooklyn began right after the hurricanes hit the Caribbean a month ago. Residents of the neighborhood, which has one of the largest populations of Puerto Ricans in New York – 26 percent, began to take matters into their own hands. They said that President Trump’s recent remarks on Puerto Rico strengthened their resolve to help their relatives back home without depending on the national government.
“This is not something that anyone has to be asking [for] when there is a tragedy like this. We are US citizens. We are not second class.” says Vector Gonzalez, a Vietnam war veteran who has been working 12 hours a day at the relief center for the past few weeks. Gonzalez said that despite not having basic rights to vote, the 3.5 million people of Puerto Rico have always come forward to represent the U.S. “From World War 1, World War 2, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. And yet do you [POTUS] have the audacity of saying that we are asking for too much?”
Dennis Flores – co-founder of El Grito De Sunset Park, a grassroots organization that brought the relief effort together – said that they started their work right before Hurricane Irma hit during the first week of September. They had anticipated some amount of damage, but when Hurricane Maria hit two weeks later and completely devastating Puerto Rico, they doubled up their effort and now have considerable experience in collecting, storing and distributing the donations.
Flores said at this point, “It is crucial to hurry up and get these resources out there in a well-organized manner. Because we can’t just wait for FEMA.”
The center has sent their supplies through ships, private planes and through some individual volunteers who travelled to Puerto Rico. Flores said that they have no intention of handing over the donations to organizations like the Red Cross or FEMA. “We are going to Puerto Rico. Making sure this stuff gets distributed.”, he said. Flores, who said he will be making the trip next week along with NYPD police officers from the National Latino Officers Association, plans to work in conjunction with the Truckers Union in Puerto Rico to ensure materials reach those who need them.
In the process of helping their families back in Puerto Rico, the NuYoricans of Sunset Park appear to have brought the entire community together. Rosie Velez, an organizer at the center, said that the initial effort to set up was met with positive response from all their neighbors. As donations began to pour in, she said they faced a need for more volunteers to manage the supplies and a space to store it.
But very soon, others reached out to them and offered a hand in help. Velez said that the Muslim community center was the first to offer their mosque as a storage space for water, juice and food items. Others offered their basements, garages and even containers for storing supplies; vehicles and offered transportation to collect and deliver items. Now, she says, they have 50-75 volunteers from all the boroughs, New Jersey, Long Island, Philadelphia and Rochester who come to help them everyday.
“We take everything except for used clothes,” Velez said, as they have accumulated almost 3 – 4 floors of clothes last week which cannot be sent to Puerto Rico now. Instead, they have begun to focus on medical supplies, baby products, and essential food items.
Katherine Molina said she drove down from New Jersey with her sister-in-law and friends, to volunteer at the center for the weekend. “It’s really tough. I haven’t heard from my family in two weeks. I don’t know how they are or how to reach them.” she said. She has been organizing and packing the unexpired medicines donated at the centre. Molina said that volunteering and doing her bit towards helping those in need makes her feel better than sitting at home, being scared.
The team at El Grito says they are going to keep up the relief center open until there is no need required. Rosie Velez, who has been working nearly 16 hours a day managing all the collection, storage and distribution said “I am not going to stop until I see my Puerto Rico back. We are going to come through and get up. No one is going to bring us down.”