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Local donations pour in for devastated Puerto Rico

Mike Ham of Kenmore pulled up in front of the Belle Center on Buffalo's West Side on Wednesday morning. The trunk of his car was packed with bags of food and clothing collected by Judges Row Block Club and at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church.

Ham doesn't have any family in Puerto Rico, but several members of the block club do. He said he was helping simply because the people of Puerto Rico need it.

"They're taking too long to get federal help down there, to get any kind of help," he said.

Local relief efforts are picking up steam to aid Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria that devastated the island a week ago.

Donations of bottled water, flashlights, D batteries and other essentials have been pouring into the Belle Center on Maryland Street, Chito Olivencia told volunteers who met Tuesday night at the Olivencia Community Center on Swan Street.

How to donate to Puerto Rico hurricane relief efforts

One room at the center has cases of water stacked eight or nine high in some spots. Another room is jammed with bags of donated food. A third has a mix of toiletries, pet food and other items.

Donations collected at various sites in Buffalo and the surrounding area will eventually be amassed at the Connecticut Street Armory and sent to Puerto Rico as one shipment on a military transport, according to organizers. But that shipment won't happen until after Oct. 6, when the initial local drive is scheduled to end.

At the Belle Center, Executive Director Lucy Candelario said she couldn't estimate how much has already been donated.

"Not enough," she said.

Puerto Rican residents are without electrical power, fresh water and access to basic consumer staples as the island prepares for a long recovery.

Some local residents who have relatives in Puerto Rico have been able to communicate with them – after hours and days of no communication.

Hundreds of San Juan residents took shelter at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, during  Hurricane Maria. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Oswaldo Mestre Jr. has aunts, uncles and cousins who live Trujillo Alto, a town outside San Juan.

"It wasn't until last night that I heard from my uncle. I'm still waiting to hear from my aunt and some cousins. The part of Puerto Rico where they are at, it's in the hills," said Mestre, director of citizen services for the City of Buffalo and one of the coordinators of the relief effort.

"To be able to help coordinate this is a kind of therapy," he added.

Margie Soto, who also attended the Hurricane Maria Relief Fund Committee meeting at the Olivencia Center, has family on the east and west coasts of the island.

"They have been waiting for relief since Maria hit. They were promised that they were going to get relief by the governor. Til this day, they're still waiting for relief. They got hit twice, hard, very hard," Soto said, referring to Hurricane Irma, which preceded Maria.

"Houses have been destroyed, especially the wooden ones with tin roofing. That kind of roofing, forget it. If you had a wooden house with a zinc roof, forget about it. There's still a lot of poor people there. Not everything is made of concrete," Soto said.

The destruction left in Hurricane Maria’s wake in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Vieques has been mostly cut off from all communication since Maria hit. (Amy Gordon for The Washington Post)

Mestre said his family in Trujillo Alto – those with whom he has been able to make contact, at least – fared better. But they still faced devastation.

"My uncle, he's a pretty resourceful type of guy. They did pretty well and there are people taking care of their neighbors in their community," Mestre said. "He lives in a brick house, a cinderblock brick house. He built it. He lives around a lot of  farmland."

"He said that's all gone, even though the house remains," Mestre said.

Luis Castro, a West Side resident who was at the meeting, has family in Humacao that includes his mother, sister and brother-in-law.

Castro said he finally heard from them a couple of days after the hurricane hit because his sister was able to travel to a part of the city that still had a cellphone signal.

"She told me everyone was OK,  but that the issue is they have no power," Castro said.

A neighbor with some access to electrical power provided a cable to their house, offering enough energy to power a refrigerator which, Castro said, is vital to keep some medicines they use at a cool temperature.

"My brother-in-law has multiple sclerosis. My sister is a heart patient. My mother takes a lot of medicines because she is elderly," Castro said. "So right now it's a very complicated situation."

He said his brother-in-law requires medical treatments at the Veterans Administration hospital. He has been unable to make the trip because of problems with distribution of gasoline. Castro said almost all of the gas stations in his hometown were destroyed in the storm.

In other parts of Puerto Rico, Soto said, relatives are doing without a great deal for the time being.

"They're doing without everything right now. I got a text from the daughter of a lady I know ... she said the Econo, which is a supermarket that every town in Puerto Rico has, that Econo is completely empty. There is no food," Soto said.

"They said that the town of Rincon was spared, luckily. There's some, you know, movement. The town of Agua, on the west coast, today, the mayor of that town took out a telephone, put it in the plaza. Town people from that area who were able to get out of their homes have been calling their families long distance," she said.

Soto was visiting relatives in Rincon right before Maria hit. She was there when Irma struck, with a visit planned to the end of the month.

"I got out of there Sept. 17, a Sunday. I was told to get out, because it wasn't going to be pretty without water and electric power," she said.

The line is long for access to the one working phone provided by the mayor, Soto said.

"He gives them one minute on the phone," she said. "With that one minute, they are so grateful to reach out their family."

News Staff Reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.

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