SALT LAKE CITY — Last week, Annie and Hector Rodriguez left the safety of their powerless, battered Puerto Rican home in the family car, navigating damaged roads, washed-out bridges and massive debris in hopes of finding a way to communicate with their daughter in Utah.
Cellphones in hand, they searched for a signal that would allow them to call their daughter, Dorany Rodriguez-Baltazar, to let her know how they were doing after much of her island home had been destroyed by Hurricane Maria.
“They got in their car and they drove and drove until they found signal,” said the Salt Lake attorney, who grew up in the U.S. territory that 3.5 million Americans call home. “They found it because they saw other cars that were parked on the freeway, and they would stop and say, ‘Who is your carrier?’ They kept driving until they found AT&T. I talked to my mom, who is 76, and my dad, who is 80. I was crying; my mom was crying.”
Rodriguez-Baltazar’s conversation with them on Friday is the only contact she’s had with her family in Puerto Rico, which was devastated when the eye of Hurricane Maria passed over the island, which is about 1,200 miles from Florida in the Caribbean Sea, on Sept. 20. Two days after that phone call, Rodriguez-Baltazar learned her beloved uncle Hector Cortes passed away Saturday morning.
“It was the first and only time since the hurricane (she talked with them),” said Rodriguez-Baltazar, who is joining with others in organizing help for the people of Puerto Rico, who could be without power for months and report being low on food, water and fuel.
“We’re so scared," she said. "I’m here; my brother is in Florida. We’re just so far away. We knew as soon as we heard what happened, we knew there would be a need. I feel hopeless. I feel desperate. You are crying and praying. You’re calling that number, every single number in your directory, every 10 minutes thinking, ‘Maybe now it’s going to happen.’”
Rodriguez-Baltazar said there are many Puerto Rican transplants living in Utah, and they began talking about how they might help their families and friends back home. She joined with architectural designer Carlos Nunez and attorney Tani Pack Downing, who served an LDS mission on the island in 1984-85. Nunez set up a Youcaring page to take financial donations, and shortly after that, they began organizing an effort to collect donations for those suffering on the island.
That led them to another Puerto Rican transplant, Jeff Mendez, who is the vice president of sales at Vivint.
“We’ve been friends since our youth in Puerto Rico,” Mendez said of Rodriguez-Baltazar. “We approached each other, and decided obviously the best strategy was to combine our efforts.”
Vivint has offered two warehouses as donation drop-offs, and then it will pay for the cost of flying the donations to Puerto Rico.
“It’s apocalyptic,” Mendez said of the situation facing residents of the island. “I lived through Hurricane Hugo, and we were without power for two weeks. It is pretty difficult to deal with that.”
Estimates have Puerto Rico without power from a minimum of four to six months, and parts of the island could be without power for up to a year.
‘It’s going to be extremely challenging,” Mendez said. “My main concern are the infants and children and the elderly. Anyone on a respirator or ventilator, as soon as the diesel fuel in those generators runs out, those people are in trouble; those people are dying.”
Getting donations and help directly to people on the island is the biggest challenge as the airport is currently closed, as are the ports. Mendez is working with a contact in Florida to get the plane of goods to Puerto Rico if he can get it to Miami.
“I’ll be in Miami next Saturday to get everything on boats and planes,” he said. “This isn’t a situation where people from a neighboring state can drive over and help us. They have a huge ocean in between us. And there are 3.5 million American citizens in dire need right now.”
Downing said there are entire villages that haven’t been heard from.
“I’ve stayed in contact with the people I knew or taught when I was in Puerto Rico,” she said. “I set up a Facebook page, not just for missionaries, but for members (of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) also, and it allows us to keep in contact. It’s been going since 2009."
Downing was compelled to help because if anything stuck with her from her mission, it was the generosity of the people of Puerto Rico.
“They were very gracious,” she said. “It was eye-opening to me coming from a place of affluence, to go there and see some of the very humble circumstances. They want to feed you, give you something to drink, even though they didn’t have very much. The generosity of the people was so great, even though many of them lived in very humble circumstances.”
Nunez said he’s heard from his family, but they said they’re running low on basic supplies like gas, water and batteries. There is also a criminal element that preys on the fact that people are cut off from help and each other.
“It’s very severe,” he said of the situation. “Our intent is to get over there by any means.” Working with Vivint will allow them to accompany the donations and get them directly in to the hands of the people in need.
Rodriguez-Baltazar said she is focused on constructive activities to keep herself from grieving those lost and worrying about the danger her parents and extended family could live with for a long period of time.
“I am just desperate,” she said. “You are trying to even imagine, you’re trying to have good thoughts, trying to be positive, but we see everything in the media, and you don’t hear from them, so you’re assuming they’re in the same position.”
Vivint has offered warehouse space at two locations — 4949 N. 300 West in Provo and 3401 N. Ashton Blvd. in Lehi. Supplies and goods can be dropped off Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as well as Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The items organizers are hoping to collect are bottled water, water filters, hand sanitizer, diapers, canned or dried food, baby formula, garbage bags, canned/dried milk, mosquito repellent, blankets, hygiene kids, nonelectric can openers, first-aid kits, dish soap, batteries and medication. A full list of desired items is available at the Youcaring page, where financial donations are also accepted (www.youcaring.com/puertorico-959538).