A Wappingers Falls man is stepping up for Puerto Rico after the flow of federal aid to the island — and donations from the public — has slowed down.
"The city administrator told me that in the mountainous areas. They don't get any relief. They haven't gotten any relief the entire year. When people think of Puerto Rico, they think of San Juan and San Dulce and other places that are more well-known, but not the mountainous regions," said Joe Torres, the man organizing the donations.
Torres, who has family in Puerto Rico, posted on Facebook in October requesting donations to go toward helping people who are still suffering, 14 months after Hurricane Maria hit the commonwealth. The response overwhelmed him.
"A couple of bags turned into a couple of boxes," Torres said of his donation collection campaign. "After about six or eight weeks, a couple of boxes turned into 14 boxes."
While trying to figure out how and exactly where to send the supplies, friends steered Torres toward officials from the city of Yauco, on the southwestern part of the island. Torres eventually connected with Yauco City Administrator Larry Soto-Morales.
"He said, 'Whatever we can get, because we have nothing,' " Torres recalled from their conversation. "They literally have nothing."
Soto-Morales told Spectrum News Wednesday that the need for donations is especially dire nowadays, although the flow of donations into his area "is slower than it has been before."
Soto-Morales pointed out that Puerto Rico's central government has its hands tied and cannot shell out aid at will, even though it would go toward helping its own people. A fiscal board, appointed by the U.S. federal government, has been in charge of the commonwealth's finances to address its public debt of more than $70 billiion, tightening the flow of hurricane relief aid.
Soto-Morales also said Washington has been holding off on reimbursing millions of dollars to Puerto Rico.
One example he gave was $7 million spent to clear roads and neighborhoods of debris, for which local officials expect to get reimbursed. But Soto-Morales said that reimbursement is weeks overdue.
"The cities are on their own," Soto-Morales said. "They're trying to gather any help that they can to sustain the health of the citizens."
Their health remains challenged, especially because of a lack of access to clean water, he added.
Soto-Morales said five communities near the hub city of Yauco are without properly running water because the equipment powering the pumps had given out. That was all Torres needed to target this region with his 14 boxes of supplies.
"I said, 'OK, I'll get everything that I collected and I'll send it to you specifically,' " Torres said.
After his interview with Spectrum News at his Wappingers Falls home, Torres pointed to a stack of calculators on a nearby table and spoke about his next donation project, which will be focused on school supplies.
"I look at some of the underprivileged areas where there are not even cell phone towers, where you probably have children still working with chalkboards," Torres said. "If we're going to bring everyone into the 21st century, let's give them something to work with other than an abacus or a chalkboard."