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'I'm alive and everything': Dunkirk mayor hears from his mom in Puerto Rico

The mobile phone started buzzing about 10:30 a.m. Friday, in Dunkirk City Hall. Hector Rosas pulled it out of his pocket, and a woman whose voice he didn't recognize told him she was with someone who wanted to speak to him.

For a second, there was a pause.

"This is Rosalia Rosas Valentin," another woman said, as if in introduction.

"Mom, it's me!" said Hector, who started laughing. He is Dunkirk's director of special events. His mother, 77, had been cut off for more than a week from all contact with her Western New York family. In retirement, she lives in Puerto Rico. She was there when Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

For 10 days, her four grown children - including Hector's brother, Mayor Willie Rosas, the first Latino ever elected to serve as mayor of a city in New York - had worried about whether she was all right. In that way, their fears were similar to those of thousands of people of Puerto Rican descent throughout Western New York, many going through the same anxiety about relatives affected by the storm.

The Rosas family had no access to the island. Rosalia's phone kept ringing busy.

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Friday, Hector was ecstatic to hear her voice.

"Everything's fine," she told him. "I'm alive and everything. But I've got no water, no electricity and no food in the fridge."

That shrug of the shoulders amid crisis, he said, is emblematic of his mother. Born with scoliosis, she assumed sole responsibility for raising her children when her husband died at 45, in Dunkirk, of a heart attack. She worked as a seamstress at the old M. Wile Co. That job, involving long days above a sewing machine, left her in agonizing pain.

Sean Kirst: A mayor worries about his mother, in Puerto Rico, cut off by hurricane

She didn't complain. She'd get up and cook breakfast for her family, go to the job, come home and cook dinner - and then mend the neighbors' clothes for a few extra dollars.

Hector, as he spoke to her, looked out a window at City Hall. Willie was pulling into the parking lot. Hector banged on the glass, phone to his ear, and started walking toward his brother.

Before long, Hector was handing Willie the phone.

The call, they learned, happened this way: Norma Olivencia, a Buffalo woman, saw our piece in The Buffalo News in which Willie and Hector shared their concern about how their mother fared during the storm. Olivencia has a friend, Rosalyn Comacho Rodriguez, who lives near Hormigueros, on the western part of the island, about five miles from Rosalia.

Olivencia called Rodriguez, who has a working land line. She drove to Rosalia's, checked in on her and learned that Rosalia and her husband, Heriberto Valentin, had no water. Rodriguez made sure Rosalia replenished her supply, then Rodriguez drove to her home with Hector's mother, where they could make the call to Dunkirk.

That's when the phone buzzed in Hector's pocket. His mother reassured him. She said she was fine. But she also said temperatures are hovering around 90, there is no air conditioning, and that she's needed to stand in line for hours - first for gasoline and then at the bank to get some cash, where she was only allowed to take out a maximum of $200.

"They've got a grill," Hector said of his mother and stepfather. When the couple can do it, they cook outside. But for now, Rosalia and Heriberto are pretty much living off canned food.

Hector and Willie said they're relieved, but they also know thousands upon thousands of people are still waiting to hear from relatives. Representatives of U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer have said families in that situation are welcome to call Schumer's Buffalo office, at (716) 846-4111, and staff members will put those names on a list and do what they can to help.

As for Hector, he had hoped to fly Sunday to Puerto Rico, but he isn't sure any airports near his mother will be accepting flights. For now, he and the mayor and City Clerk Edwin Ramos will continue collecting goods and cash from the community as part of a larger relief effort in Western New York - and will keep doing whatever they can for families affected by the disaster.

"We are very thankful," Hector said, "but there are a lot of people hurting around here."

Email Sean Kirst at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive 

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