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Diaspora set to aid Puerto Rico after Fiona — with lessons it learned after Maria

 A home and farm submerged by floodwaters in Cayey, in south-central Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Fiona.
Stephanie Rojas
A home and farm submerged by floodwaters in Cayey, in south-central Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Fiona.

After Hurricane Fiona left Puerto Rico under island-wide blackout and flooding, the South Florida diaspora wants to avoid the relief mistakes it witnessed in 2017.

Hurricane Fiona has left catastrophein its wake after hitting Puerto Rico on Sunday — and South Florida’s Puerto Rican diaspora says it’s learned from the last major storm disaster there about how best to help the island.

Although it struck just as a Category 1 storm, and its center only grazed Puerto Rico’s southwest coast, Fiona knocked out power across the island’s notoriously fragile grid. It also dumped as much as 30 inches of rain, causing massive flooding.

Many Puerto Ricans in South Florida have family caught in the disaster. Debbie Sosa of Miami says her aunt was in the Villa Blanca home for the elderly outside Ponce on the island’s southern coast. The facility was reportedly swallowed by water and Sosa is trying to find out if her aunt is safe.

“They lost everything, especially the elderly," Sosa said. "We have bridges [there] that have collapsed. There’s no communication. So it’s very difficult to get to them, but we’re going to do everything in our power.”

Sosa was actively involved in relief work after Category 5 Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017 (making landfall there as a Category 4). She says the diaspora here learned important lessons from that tragedy — especially after watching food and other aid they sent there sit at the port in San Juan and not get into the island.

“This time we should wait for an assessment from our partners in Puerto Rico, because we want to target those people specifically that have been left with nothing," Sosa said Monday after conference calls with Puerto Rican civic, business and government leaders both in the U.S. island territory and here on the U.S. mainland.

"We need to hold on until we can decide what we’re going to do to make our help most effective," she added.

South Florida's Puerto Rican diaspora won kudos in 2017 for commandeering aid delivery to the storm-ravaged island on private charter flights and shipping containers. Their assistance often reached some of Puerto Rico's worst hit communities before help arrived from the U.S. and Puerto Rican government-led efforts.

After pummeling Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona shifted to the eastern Dominican Republic and is forecast to hit the Turks and Caicos and eastern Bahama islands before heading north into the Atlantic as a major Category 2 or 3 storm.

For those seeking to help Puerto Ricans affected by the storm, Sosa recommended nonprofits including Hispanic Federation in Puerto Rico and PRxPR, based in New York. Other groups in South Florida taking donations include the Global Empowerment Mission in Doral.

The Miami-Dade Urban Search-and-Rescue unit has also sent three members to Puerto Rico to assist local first responders there.

Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.