PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – It’s been nearly two months since Hurricane Maria slammed into the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. However, thousands of American citizens on the islands are still without power and even essentials like food, water and medical care.
Pittsburghers haven’t forgotten about the current need. The non-profit organization Brother’s Brother is still collecting and shipping supplies. A Carnegie Mellon University student is a native of Puerto Rico. She has launched a one-woman relief effort, which is gaining momentum and national attention.
CMU junior Rosana Guernica appeared for a taping of the KD-PG Sunday Edition public affairs show. She became emotional as she described how distraught she and her friends were when they couldn’t contact family members right after the hurricane hit.
“Anyone who is Puerto Rican was glued to their television that night watching Hurricane Maria hit. And suddenly we lost contact with all our friends and family. And no one could reach anyone,” Guernica said.
She said she was floored when she finally got through the next day and saw pictures of the damage.
“It was worse than what we thought it would be,” said Guernica. “I’m seeing my friends’ apartments with windows gone, the beach uprooted five blocks up the street.”
But, Guernica said she became even more disturbed when, weeks after the recovery effort began, she was still hearing stories about people suffering and even dying from lack of food, water and medical attention. That’s when she knew she personally had to take action.
“I knew all these wealthy families were leaving (for the United States) through private charters. I thought, let’s fundraise the money and be able to evacuate the people whose lives depend on it,” Guernica said.
She knew it was do or die.
“If they don’t continue their dialysis or take their insulin or continue their chemo or radiation they are going to perish,” she said.
What started as a grass roots effort to take one plane-load of medical supplies to Puerto Rico has bloomed into a community-wide effort to take charters full of supplies to the island and bring back critically ill patients for treatment. So far, Guernica and her group have taken thousands of pounds of supplies and brought back hundreds of patients.
NewsRadio 1020 KDKA talk show host Robert Mangino went on the most recent trip as a volunteer and a journalist. He says he saw first-hand what some have described as a slow government response.
“One of the things about Puerto Rico is that it’s not a state,” Mangino told KDKA-TV’s Ken Rice and co-host David Shribman of the Post-Gazette. “Even though they’re American citizens, they don’t have the same pull. They don’t have influence, they don’t have voting members of Congress. As a result, people don’t pay as much attention as they otherwise would.”
Some have also complained about a slow response by the government to the damage in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where residents are also U.S. citizens. That’s where the latest shipment of relief supplies from Pittsburgh-based Brother’s Brother is headed. So far, the group has sent 10 shipments, the latest to the island of St. Croix.
“We’re sending water, food, tarps, some cleaning supplies and some school supplies for the people affected by Hurricane Maria,” said Brother’s Brother President Luke Hingson.
Forklift operators at the organization’s warehouse on the North Side were loading pallets of supplies into a tractor-trailer.
The shipment will take nearly a month to get to the islands.
“It takes 3 to 4 weeks for it to go from here to there. And then, they have to load it off the ship, put it on a truck and then it goes to local churches for distribution,” said Hingson.
He also said he’s constantly amazed at the generosity of Pittsburghers, who have donated non-stop.
“We’re just very grateful of the people of southwestern Pennsylvania for helping us for so many years,” he said.