Family Ties: NY Rushes Aid to Ravaged Puerto Rico


New York state, home to more than 1 million people of Puerto Rican background, is sending a lot more than thoughts and prayers to the hurricane-ravaged island.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has organized an aid package that reads like the grocery list for a small army: 34,000 bottles of water, more than 10,000 field rations, 1,400 cots, pillows and blankets, 10 generators and four Black Hawk search-and-rescue helicopters.

Also, more than 100 New York City firefighters, police officers and other workers are in Puerto Rico to help, and Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio says he is preparing the city to handle an expected influx of thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing the storm’s damage.

On Wednesday, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s voice broke with emotion as she described traveling with a city team to an island that was home to several members’ parents, including her own mother.

“She tells me every day not to worry about her, though the level of desperation is getting there,” Mark-Viverito said, noting that her mother had left her damaged home to stay with friends in a high-rise with no power and had stood in a five-hour line to get gasoline.

While New York is 1,600 miles away from Puerto Rico, connections often feel much closer in the state with the nation’s biggest Puerto Rican community off the island itself.

New York City has about 700,000 people of Puerto Rican descent — roughly twice the population of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. And those ties have been pulling at New Yorkers since Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico last week, killing 16 and leaving nearly all 3.4 million residents without power or water.

“It’s being felt deeply here,” Edwin Melendez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at city-run Hunter College, said Wednesday between making phone calls to try to arrange aid. The center’s website has repeatedly crashed since it posted a list of ways to donate, he said.

New York’s Puerto Rican population began growing significantly in the 1950s and ’60s as people left the island in search of economic opportunity. While many families have now been in New York for generations, many identify strongly with their heritage. The city’s annual Puerto Rican Day is one of New York’s biggest parades of the year.

That’s not lost on New York’s politicians, many of whom make an annual trip to San Juan for a Democratic conference called Somos El Futuro, or We’re the Future.

Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote in federal elections, but as U.S. citizens, they can vote if they move to the mainland.

“That’s what has galvanized the Puerto Rican community in the states — because we need to speak for citizens in Puerto Rico,” said Arlene Davila, a Puerto Rico-born anthropology and American studies professor at New York University.

Visiting a firehouse Saturday, de Blasio vowed New Yorkers would “stand by Puerto Rico.

“And when Puerto Rico asks, ‘Where is New York City in our hour of need?” he said, “We say simply say: ‘Presente.’”