The Hurricane ravaged the island on Sept. 20 and left many people without food, water, and supplies. Months later, half of the island was still without power.
During their three-day trip they met with local government officials, residents of several towns, and assisted Red Cross volunteers handing out supplies.
She said she asked a local volunteer what the people of Puerto Rico need, and to her surprise, he responded “mental health.”
“You see all these people standing and smiling and you think they are doing all right, but some of them are broken inside,” she said. “All they can do is keep going, and pray. The suicide rate has increased dramatically since the hurricane. I’m not sure how we can help prevent that. Maybe we can get mental healthcare professionals to volunteer their time. I am not sure. ”
She said overall, “I was shocked by the damage to the island. You read about it and you see pictures, but its nothing like going in person.”
The visitors helped the Red Cross hand out supplies to approximately 1,000 people in the mountain town of Ciales. Chaparro said during the slow drive up the mountain, they were concerned they were backing up traffic, because a line of cars began to form behind them.
“No one was honking or anything,” said Chaparro. “We realized they weren’t trying to get anywhere. They were following us because they knew we had supplies.”
At the top, they began handing out food and water and other supplies like batteries.
Despite the circumstances and rainy weather, Chaparro said the people were thoughtful, kind, and welcoming.
She told the story of a couple who welcomed them to their home nearby.
“Here we are handing out supplies and unloading this giant truck, and the people who live across the street walk over and invite us into their home to use the restroom if we need to,” said Chaparro, “and they make us buttered bread and are trying hard to be accommodating and welcoming even though they were hit by the effects of the hurricane.”
She said volunteers and people in line gave up some of their supplies when they began to run out, and traveled for neighbors who couldn’t make it to the distribution point.
“I don’t want to forget the impact this had on my heart and mind,” said Chaparro. “It’s not about politics. It’s not about what you have, or don’t have. It’s about being a decent human being, and knowing that you are in pain, and yet thinking of your neighbor who is also in pain.”
“Despite all of this, they were always smiling.” – Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro.
This was Chaparro’s second trip to Puerto Rico, after a one day trip in December with other legislators, members of the business community, faith-based community, and Gov. Phil Murphy, who a week ago Tuesday signed an executive order establishing a Commission on Puerto Rico Relief.
The 18-member commission will collaborate with state and federal agencies to expedite processes benefiting displaced Puerto Ricans in New Jersey, as well as examine ways the state can aid the island.
The committee is chaired by Rev. Joshua Rodriguez, pastor of Cityline Church & National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
“It is unacceptable that five months after Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, so many of our fellow Americans are still feeling the impacts of the storm,” said Murphy. “This joint commission will help the approximately 30,000 Puerto Ricans who have taken refuge in New Jersey, by directing our state agencies to fast-track help for those who have been displaced. We also must find additional ways to help the island and return Puerto Ricans to normalcy.”
Murphy’s executive order will mandate the commission to work with state agencies to ascertain what services are already provided to Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican evacuees in New Jersey. It also requires the commission to work with federal agencies to expedite processes that will benefit Puerto Ricans in New Jersey in need of services.
Chaparro said at an upcoming meeting of the Latino Legislative Caucus she wants to discuss the idea of New Jersey to adopt specific towns in Puerto Rico.
“I think it would be a good idea if we went from town to town, those who have been most affected first, and work our way down the list aiding them, sending volunteers and supplies,” said Chaparro. “Then we can document it and show what we are doing and that we are making a difference.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at email@example.com.