In Spanish, Puerto Rico is known as “isla de encanta,” or “island of enchantment,” for its blue waters, sandy beaches and lush tropical foliage.
But in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, conditions on the island, a U.S. territory since 1898, have been described as apocalyptic.
No food. No power. No water.
It’s a disaster that has hit home for a large number of Liberty Countians.
According to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Liberty County’s total Puerto Rican population in 2014 was 2,896 — giving the county the eighth highest Puerto Rican population in Georgia.
More than 1,860 Puerto Ricans are estimated to be living in Hinesville alone, according to Wincy Poon, a GIS technician with the city of Hinesville.
Many, like Annie Torres, Iris Cadiz, Mayra Barrows and Pablo Rodriguez, have family on the island.
So they wait. And worry. And pray.
“It’s like a real stab in the heart,” said Torres, whose sisters, Marline Rivera and Ada Rivera, are still in Puerto Rico. They are from Barranquitas, a town in the mountains with a population of about 30,400.
“I talked to my sister Marline the day before the storm hit,” Torres said. “She was telling me it was going to be serious. They already didn’t have any electricity, they hadn’t had any since Irma hit.”
Irma was the first hurricane to pummel the island in September. It did damage. But it was merely a warmup compared to what was to come. Hurricane Maria almost leveled the island on Sept. 20, according to reports Tuesday warning of humanitarian nightmares if more help did not arrive.
“I am glad my mom is already deceased, because she would have been devastated to see the island so demolished like that” Torres said.
Cadiz, whose husband Roberto is also Puerto Rican, has lived in Hinesville most of her life. Her father, a civil servant, came to Fort Stewart 52 years ago, but you don’t lose your ties to the island, she said.
And like many Puerto Ricans, both she and her husband have family who’ve stayed there.
“It’s been very hard,” Cadiz said Monday. “My aunt called me today, but we haven’t heard from my husband’s side of the family yet.”
Cadiz, recently honored for decades of work with the Hinesville Police Department, said she feels as if her hands are tied.
“There’s really nothing we can do,” she said. “I was going to send a package today, and my aunt said not to, because the
mail is not working.”
Cadiz said there are shortages of everything on the island, and a cousin waited in line for more than three hours for gas Monday. She didn’t make it halfway to the pumps, Cadiz said.
Barrow, from Juana dia Ponce, has lived in Hinesville for 25 years. She last went back to the island for a grandmother’s funeral more than a decade ago, but still has lots of family and friends there.
“You always keep in touch with them. It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “We might not be there, but we feel their pain. We were born there, we have family there. And we don’t know how they are.”
CNN reported Tuesday a survey showed more than half of Americans don’t realize Puerto Ricans are their countrymen.
They are, and have been U.S. citizens since 1917. What’s more, many Puerto Ricans join the U.S. military. As of 2010, there were more than 116,000 veterans from the island, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Among them is Pablo Rodriquez, who retired from the Army and National Guard after serving 34 years. He’s lived in Hinesville since 1983.
Both his son, Axel Rodriguez, an officer in the Puerto Rico State Police, and daughter, Madeline Rodriguez, a registered nurse, live in Camuy, which is on the island’s northwestern coast.
“They’re fine,” Rodriguez said, but added he’d only recently been able to reach his brother, Israel, and sister, Maria, who also live in Puerto Rico.
Like many retired soldiers, Rodriguez doesn’t sit still when there’s something to be done. In 1992, he founded the Hispanic Heritage Club of Hinesville-Fort Stewart, which at one point had more than 150 members.
Now he’s using the club, and an upcoming carnival, to try and raise funds and help for his home.
On Saturday, Oct. 7, the Hispanic Heritage Club will be accepting donations of money, food and items for babies and women from noon until “8 or 9 p.m.” at J.J.’s Bar and Grill at 726 E. Oglethorpe Highway in Hinesvlle.
A second fundraiser will be held Oct. 14 at the Hispanic Viva La Cultura Carnival at Bryant Commons.
Rodriguez said he’s already reached out to the Georgia Air National Guard to see about a flight to Puerto Rico to carry whatever his group collects.
If that can’t be arranged, the club will get a truck and drive the donations to Orlando, a staging area for relief efforts, Rodriguez said, adding not all of the donations his club collects will go to Puerto Rico.
“The money, we’ll try to split between Puerto Rico and Mexico,” he said. “They had an earthquake. We know they need some help too.”
For information, call Rodriguez at 912-320-7192.