By LINDA MOSS
When Montclair’s José German-Gomez phoned his sister in Puerto Rico the day that Hurricane Maria hit the island, he could hear sounds of the devastating storm in the background.
“It was incredible, the noise and the wind,” German-Gomez said. “It was really scary. I was really concerned about her, because she was by herself.”
She was safe, but German-Gomez remains worried about her, just like other township residents of Puerto Rican descent who fear for the safety of their family members on the island — and its very future. Since the deadly hurricane made landfall last week, Puerto Rico remains without electricity, little phone service, with dwindling supplies of clean water and food — all the makings of a humanitarian crisis.
This week German-Gomez’s 38-year-old son, who is based in New Mexico and works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was part of a group that traveled to Puerto Rico to try to help to get the island back on its feet.
“I‘m very proud of my son Carlos German, who volunteered to go to Puerto Rico with one of the first federal government responders,” said German-Gomez, an environmental activist who is founder and president of the Northeast Earth Coalition.
Township at-Large Councilman Bob Russo, who has 15 cousins and second cousins who live in the U.S. territory in the Caribbean, is trying to rally local officials and residents to get involved in efforts to help Puerto Rico, which may be without power for months. And on Wednesday, the township launched its own collection drive to help those affected by Hurricane Maria.
Israel Cronk, executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, had family from Puerto Rico flying to New Jersey this week. And Montclair resident Luis Delgado got emotional when he talked about not having heard from one of his elderly, ill relatives since the deadly storm.
Spotty or nonexistent communication with those on the devastated island, which sustained massive flooding and wind damage, has Montclair residents with family there on edge and frustrated.
“We’re glued to the TV,” Delgado said. “We’re glued to our computers to see what’s going on and it’s as we expected: It’s devastating, especially the mountain roads.”
Local relief initiatives are either underway or in the works. This week First Congregational Church scheduled a meeting for its volunteers, many of whom hail from Puerto Rico, to map out a strategy for sending aid, funds and supplies to the island, according to the Rev. Ann Ralosky.
Russo has asked the Township Council to work in conjunction with not only Bloomfield, which has already launched a drive to collect supplies to send to Puerto Rico, but other organized aid efforts. And in Newark, Councilman Luis Quintana is leading the relief efforts, with a fundraising event set for Oct. 8, according to Russo.
In an email to his fellow council members, Russo said that in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands there are “over 3.5 million U.S. citizens in desperate need of emergency assistance.”
He wrote, “We need a new ‘Marshall Plan’ to help these poorest residents of our own country rebuild, and I hope Montclair will do our part to make this happen.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the township announced that it had started a collection drive seeking donated items for Puerto Rico.
Russo is an Italian-American and has deep links to Puerto Rico. Russo’s aunt Ann, his father’s youngest sister, married a Puerto Rican, Juan Oliver, and moved to the island in the 1940s, Russo said. She and her husband had five children, Russo’s cousins, who live mainly in Ponce and they have children too. The councilman estimated that he’s made 50 visits to Puerto Rico over the years to visit his relatives.
“I’ve been all over the island, every single part,” Russo said.
German-Gomez said that his sister, nephews and friends survived Hurricane Maria, as did his home about two miles from the ocean in San Juan. Like many houses on the island, it is made of concrete and is hurricane-proof. But its first floor flooded, its awnings and solar panels were ripped off, and his garden was destroyed. He added that his sister had a small guest house in her backyard that “was absolutely destroyed, nothing remains.”
German-Gomez was born in Puerto Rico, and said that he came to the United States mainland when his company relocated. He lived in Bergen County until moving to Montclair in 2000. Delgado was born in Paterson, went to Montclair State University and moved to Montclair 11 years ago. His aunt and uncle on his mother’s side live in Puerto Rico, as do several of his in-laws.
“Communication has been sporadic,” he said. “Whenever they can get a text message or a Facebook post out, they do, but there’s been no direct communication. No one has spoken with them by phone at all since the storm … The messages have been, ‘We’re fine. We were able to get gasoline to power the generators, but the roads are disastrous.’”
Delgado, like German-Gomez and Russo, is fearful about what happens if Puerto Ricans can no longer get gas to run the generators that are now powering appliances such as refrigerators, to store food.
“I fear people getting desperate, and I think that’s the emotional toll, ” Delgado said.
Puerto Rico is “a mountain range surrounded by coastal areas,” and the roads that go into its exterior under the best of circumstances are dangerous, in the middle of a tropical rain forest with many trees, according to Delgardo. Now, those roadways are likely blocked by downed trees, he said.
“Logistically I just can’t envision anyone getting to deep inland,” he said. ”How do you get work crews, construction crews, out there? It’s treacherous, because the roads are narrow, they’re winding and there are cliffs on each side of the road. … The scene up there has got to be a nightmare.”
Delgado’s grandmother’s sister, who is elderly and has cancer, lives in an isolated mountain village. He hasn’t heard from her since the hurricane, and fears that he will get a call saying that she has died.
“I don’t want to hear that news,” Delgado said, his voice breaking with emotion.
People of Puerto Rican descent are a real minority in Montclair, making up just 2.4 percent, or 929, of the township’s 38,021 residents as of 2015, according to an American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census. Montclair’s overall Hispanic population was 3,388, or 8.9 percent, the survey found.
German-Gomez and Delgado remain worried about Puerto Rico’s future, which was already under a cloud before the hurricane because of its chronic financial problems and failing infrastructure. Not having electricity for months is yet another blow, they said, and the island needs massive federal aid to bounce back.
“That is devastation in many, many ways, because in Puerto Rico the main way of living for the island is tourism,” German-Gomez said. “So that means there is no season. That is creating even more difficulties because thousands and thousands of people work in the tourism industry — in hotels, casinos, restaurants, all of that. So that means everything has to be established ASAP, otherwise it will be financially a disaster. It is already.”
“I don’t know that they have the capacity, given the poor infrastructure because of the recession, to withstand the months without electricity,” he said. “Power being out for months is catastrophic and frankly, unacceptable, not for a territory of the United States. These are Americans you’re talking about. These aren’t foreigners. These aren’t immigrants. … Puerto Rico has been part of the United States longer than some of our states.”