‘Heart of Delaware’ beats for Puerto Rico

India S. Colon, left, snapped this photo with her 86-year-old great aunt, “Tia Clara,” who endured Hurricane Maria alone in Orocovis near the center of Puerto Rico. The area endured many mudslides. “Minimal relief efforts have arrived there to date,” said Ms. Colon Friday, “But local neighbors and family have been checking in on her. She adores her home. Her spirits were high and she was more concerned about finding something to feed me.” (Submitted photo/India S. Colon)

DOVER — She spent six days in Puerto Rico, working her way from one village to the next.

India S. Colon’s mission — from Delaware to the island where her parents were born — was to check on relatives and check on a long list of fellow Delawareans’ friends and families.

On Wednesday, she offered a glimpse of her experience at a press conference with Delaware Gov. John Carney and others.

“On Sept. 26, six days after Hurricane Maria impacted the island of Puerto Rico, I traveled to the beautiful island in hopes of finding family and friends and to help others find their families,” said Ms. Colon, an advocate for Hispanics in Delaware.

“And on this journey to 32 towns, circling the island twice, making it to the center twice, I brought all of Delaware with me — every hug, every tear shed with strangers,” she said. “The condition, even through Day 10, was devastation and with zero relief efforts. No power, no food, no water, medical needs, and a number of dead bodies unreported because they haven’t been identified.

“This was the reality of the American citizens of Puerto Rico.”

Wednesday’s press conference was a call to action, she said.

Delawareans can make material and financial donations to help the people there.

“Thank you for coming back and inspiring all of us to do everything we can,” said Gov. Carney.

Ms. Colon, reached Thursday by phone, told this editor that she plans to return to Puerto Rico soon. She said she will help distribute generators and more to people desperate and long overdue for assistance.

Delaware donations, she said, will hopefully fill seven 45-foot containers that will be shipped out of the Port of Wilmington with the help of the International Longshoremen’s Association union. Donations are being collected at Delaware State Police troops all around the state.

“It’s a great thing,” said Ms. Colon. “It won’t help 3.5 million, but it’ll help a good 2,000.”

***

Ms. Colon is no stranger to hurricane-ravaged areas.

With the Delaware Air National Guard, she had been in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas after major storms. She has 20 years of experience in the guard.

During our talk Thursday, Ms. Colon said she wanted to be clear that she was speaking only as a civilian and a volunteer about her experiences there.

In Delaware, she has been an advocate for Hispanics for about 15 years. Among the organizations she serves is Nuestras Raices Delaware.

Once on the island, she got in a Hyundai Tucson SUV and drove from town to town, getting help and directions from the locals.

“There were many areas where a bridge had collapsed, but you had to go around and find other ways,” she said.

She made contact with her family, but worries about their ongoing needs, including those of an 86-year-old great aunt. She said Thursday that her uncle told her they still have not gotten help.

Some of her cousins are serving in Puerto Rico’s National Guard.

She has family in Toa Baja, west of San Juan; inland at Orocovis where mudslides have trapped people; and in Guayama near where Hurricane Maria made landfall as a Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds.

As of Friday, about 85 percent of the island was still without power.

Much of her fundraising focus has been on getting generators to the people who need them most. She has a GoFundMe page set up that is approaching $10,000 in donations.

Ms. Colon said the island residents were getting water from streams, power for some of their needs from car batteries, and finding ways to cope.

“They always find a way,” she said. “Time is going to help.”

***

On her final night there, Ms. Colon was in San Juan, reflecting on her trips around Puerto Rico.

She decided she needed to speak out about what she saw in a Facebook Live video. She said she was frustrated and angry, knowing she had run circles around the relief effort of the U.S. government.

“Six days of seeing the emotions, six days of connecting families,” she said in the video

Ms. Colon said she went to the centers or plazas of the towns where she knew people would gather. She did not find any disaster relief officials.

People did not have directions for where to go for help, she said.

“The government has failed Americans,” said Ms. Colon in the video. “The government has not done anything with respect to the relief effort in the heart of Puerto Rico. We traveled this entire island twice, getting to people that needed relief and not a single person reported that any relief effort got to them.”

At a San Juan hotel, she pointed the Facebook Live camera at restaurant tables filled with people from FEMA, military and other agencies. She said they were enjoying WiFi, eating hot meals and drinkng alcoholic beverages while just waiting for orders.

With the lights on and the comforts of the San Juan hotel, they were not experiencing what she had in places like Toa Baja where water had stood six feet deep in the homes and people were still without power, water, food and medicine.

One of the relief team members had told her that they could not venture around the island at night, as she had done.

“We’ve been to the moon and back,” said Ms. Colon. “If we can’t operate in night conditions, how are we even surviving anywhere else in the world during operations?

“That’s just what I kept getting, ‘It’s dark and there’s no power and you don’t know how to navigate around Puerto Rico.’ People there are more than happy to take you to their town where they know there are needs. That’s how I was able to do that in six days.”

***

About 36 hours after returning to Delaware, she met with Gov. Carney.

“I was grateful that they heard a call to action, and they didn’t hesitate,” said Ms. Colon. “I’m so proud of Delaware. We’ve never fallen short on these types of things. We definitely have the heart of a lion.”

During the press conference Wednesday, Ms. Colon, who grew up in Wilmington, noted how Puerto Rico is about

India S. Colon took this photo of Hurricane Maria damage in Puerto Rico where she went to check on her relatives and those of others from Delaware.

100 miles wide – about the same distance Delaware is in length. And, Puerto Rico is about 35 miles wide, just as Delaware is in its widest areas in Sussex County.

“If a Category 5 would ever hit Delaware, that’s what it would look like,” she said. “It hits home.”

Here, people could travel to nearby states to recover. On Puerto Rico, the surrounding water makes it impossible.

And the $1,200-$1.700 flights out and frequent cancellations make it especially challenging to get family off the island, she said.

Ms. Colon said it meant a lot to her to connect with the families on her list, and many more who approached her once they saw she could help with a phone call or promise of a message when she returned to Delaware.

“It was very emotional and it still is,” said Ms. Colon. “That’s my family, too. Puerto Rico’s such a small island that everyone helps each other.

“It’s not politics. It’s not about anything other than humanity. This is a humanitarian effort. We’re not here about titles. It’s a collective humanitarian effort.”

***

Visit www.delaware.gov/Relief for more information on how to help.

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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