New York’s Response to Puerto Rico Devastation: ‘It’s Personal for Us’

As a global capital, where seemingly every country and culture has sent a delegation, events a world away have a way of reverberating in New York. It can be a burst of jubilation after a soccer victory. Or it can be the pangs of anguish following turmoil or a disaster abroad. For months after the earthquake in 2010 that ravaged Haiti, the Haitian community in New York housed relatives and sent back money and supplies. Similar aid efforts have also been organized after the recent earthquakes in Mexico.

But now a combination of the historical bonds, the scale of the destruction and a sense that the American government is not mobilizing anywhere near enough to match the calamity that has befallen its own citizens has gouged a particularly deep wound in the Puerto Rican diaspora.

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Norman Irizarry, 75, at the Corsi Senior Center in East Harlem, said the home of his daughter and grandchildren in Puerto Rico was flooded, and he has had difficulty reaching her. “I am sad because I don’t have space to house her and her children here,” Mr. Irizarry said.

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Emon Hassan for The New York Times

In longstanding enclaves in East Harlem and in the South Bronx — and well beyond them, across a region that has a Puerto Rican population about half the size of the one on the island itself — people have followed with fear and dread the accounts of the storm shredding communities, robbing residents of electricity, running water and an ability to communicate with the outside world. They have struggled to track down relatives and found some comfort in halting, muffled phone calls. And they have taken action: As officials in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey gathered aid and deployed forces, community groups and individuals staged relief efforts of their own, even flying back with chain saws packed in their luggage.

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“We’re dealing with our stress and our own kind of quiet hysteria,” Ms. Reyes Franco said, “by really focusing on trying to get some resources together.”

In the days after the storm, there has been a growing realization of how far-reaching the damage is and how much it will take for Puerto Rico, a territory mired in a financial crisis before the storm hit, to rebound. And it is a recovery that stands to test the island’s relationship with New York.

Some Puerto Ricans in New York are trying to return to collect aging parents or have offered what little space they have in their cramped apartments to relatives and friends. City officials are bracing for a flood of people in the coming weeks — “I would be surprised if that was less than the thousands,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters.

“We cannot do enough for Puerto Rico,” Mr. de Blasio said this week. “We have more and more and more we have to do. We have to be committed to Puerto Rico for the long haul. This is part of us. Puerto Rico and New York City have been joined together for generations and we owe it to the people of Puerto Rico who have gotten a raw deal in many, many ways. We owe it to them to step up.”

The response to Hurricane Maria reflects Puerto Rico’s connection to New York that has stretched over decades, touching on politics, economics and culture. “It’s personal for us,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a news conference announcing aid. “As well as a governmental or an ethical obligation, it’s a personal obligation.”

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The bond grew after World War II, when air travel allowed for an easier trip to New York City, which soon had one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the world, whose spiritual nexus was East Harlem, or El Barrio. In recent years, the population in Florida has grown, but it has yet to eclipse New York’s place as the “epicenter,” said Edwin Meléndez, the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

Indeed, of the 5.4 million Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are home to about 1.8 million, according to 2016 census data.

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Iris Cirino, 72, at the Jefferson Senior Center in East Harlem, said a relative’s house in Puerto Rico was destroyed. Her brother’s house made it OK, but he is a diabetic and has no access to his medications, running water or electricity.

Credit
Emon Hassan for The New York Times

“For now, New York is New York,” Mr. Meléndez said. “New York is always the center of the diaspora.”

For the city’s Puerto Rican political leaders, that has meant pushing for support at the local, state and federal level, while also confronting a personal toll. Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, noted that he has family members whom he has yet to hear from and others stuck in hard-to-reach places.

“We’re leaning on each other,” Mr. Diaz said in an interview.

At breakfast on a recent morning at the Corsi Senior Center in East Harlem, the crowd poured themselves cups of coffee and nibbled on toast as they shared stories and photographs of their family’s experiences after the storm, as well as their worries about what would happen in the months ahead.

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Norman Irizarry’s daughter and grandchildren were in San German, a city on the southwestern side of the island. Their home was flooded and his daughter has been difficult to reach.

“I am sad because I don’t have space to house her and her children here in New York,” Mr. Irizarry, 75, said, furrowing his thick salt-and-pepper eyebrows. “I can’t even send her anything yet. The mail isn’t working. Things aren’t getting out of San Juan. I feel awful.”

Wearing a cap that said Puerto Rico in bold red, white and blue letters, Iris Cirino, 72, pulled up pictures on her phone of a relative’s house, with splintered spikes of wood painted bright yellow and doorways that still stood after walls had collapsed around them. Her brother’s house made it OK, she said, but he is a diabetic and has no access to his medications, running water or electricity.

For her family, unlike some others, leaving for New York was, for the moment, not even a consideration — “because they are Boricua, Boricua,” she said, referring, with a bit of pride, to a name for Puerto Ricans. If anything, since the storm, Ms. Cirino has felt the pull of a homeland she left decades ago.

“I came here when I was 13, but I am still Puerto Rican,” she said, before adding, “I wish I could go right now.”

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