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For St. Louisans with ties to Puerto Rico, sending help to family is a logistical nightmare

Puerto Rico National Guard members distributed water to the communities of Utuado, Puerto Rico, in late September.
Puerto Rico National Gaurd
Puerto Rico National Guard members distributed water to the communities of Utuado, Puerto, Rico in late September.

Two weeks after Hurricane Maria’s 155 mph winds pummeled the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, many residents remain without easy access to electricity, food or running water. Cell phone service is limited, and mail service has not been fully restored.

After the storm hit on Sept. 20, a group of St. Louis-area residents with ties to the island made a plan to collect donations and send them to Puerto Rico. Angel Recci, president of the Puerto Rican Society of St. Louis, said his whole family lives outside of San Juan, the capital city.

“It was devastating,” said Recci, who moved to Missouri to play college baseball, and settled in St. Louis after he met his wife. “Knowing that they’re not going to have power for months, they’re not going to have running water for months … and you’re here, you have everything.”


The group's effort started with a PayPal link, where people could give directly to help the organization provide relief in Puerto Rico. Then it held a donation drive — volunteers established drop off points at La Tejana Taqueria in St. Ann, Racanelli’s Pizzeria in St. Peters, and the Heart Scoop Studio in Alton.

The list of requested items illustrates the scale of the disaster: among them, water filtration systems for people with no access to potable water; battery-operated cell phone chargers while the island slowly pieces its electrical grid back together; and canned food and baby formula.

Recci soon realized that getting supplies to the island would be difficult. Unlike disasters on the U.S. mainland, a volunteer can’t just pile donations into a U-Haul and drive in to help.

“Let me tell you, it is overwhelming,” Recci said. “But when something like this happens, we felt a responsibility to do something — to do as much as we can to support the victims."

At this point, there are three options, Recci explained. If FedEx is able to resume deliveries to Puerto Rico soon, they will fly the donations to the airport in San Juan on Oct. 15 where his contacts on the island would pick them up. Option B is to combine donations with a Puerto Rican society in Chicago that is shipping supplies to Florida and then taking them to Puerto Rico by boat. The last resort is for members of his organization to bring boxes with them on commercial flights when they go home to help family members rebuild their lives.

A list of requested items compiled for the donation drive.
A list of requested items compiled for the donation drive.

Other members of the Puerto Rican Society have helped in other ways. Edward Rodriguez, a civil engineer who works for the federal government, became the crucial link for St. Louis-based Express Scripts getting medicine to patients in the territory.

The pharmacy benefits manager fills prescriptions by mail, and had 80 patients in critical need of their medication with no way to reach them.

“I think we’ve gone from a search-and-rescue, flooding event to a humanitarian crisis, health care crisis, resource crisis,” Rodriguez said. “I haven’t heard of anything like this, ever, in a U.S.-based storm event. To me that is unreal.”

The solution for getting the medications to the patients was a private courier service run by his friend who lives in Puerto Rico. Express Scripts chartered a plane to fly to the island and handed off the boxes to private drivers who distributed them. Rodriguez shared a photograph of the meeting on Facebook.

“Tears in my eyes,” he said.

The Puerto Rican Society of St. Louis will continue accepting donations until Oct. 31. A benefit concert is scheduled for Friday night, at the Forest Park campus of St. Louis Community College.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB

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