'The devastation is far from over': Puerto Rican Minnesotans coordinate relief efforts

- An island of more than 3.5 million Americans remains largely cut off from the rest of the world after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory, knocking out all power and phone service for days.

Some Minnesotans with ties to Puerto Rico heard directly from loved ones for the first time Sunday. It could take others weeks to hear word on the status of their families.

“We’re waiting for the Red Cross to activate us so we can go to Puerto Rico and help,” Leslyann Velazquez said Sunday afternoon.

The 24-year-old now lives in Burnsville, Minn., but grew up in Humacao, on the east coast of the island.

Velazquez spent an agonizing 72 hours waiting to hear news about loved ones who weathered the worst hurricane the island experienced in nearly a century.

“I received a call that one of my cousins from the east side--from Humacao--that she was found floating. She drowned. She has a kid and the family is missing,” Velazquez said, holding back tears. “The call was breaking up so much.”

The budding pharmacy technician now helps mobilize two efforts for the U.S. territory from her Burnsville home: one to get herself to Puerto Rico to help find loved ones and bring them to safety, the other to gather emergency items, like those listed on her Facebook page, to offer relief.

“I’m good here, and I have water and electricity and they’re suffering," Velazquez said. "That’s the worst part."

State Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, also fought back tears as she took the first direct call she’s received from her mother in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, since Tuesday.

“It’s devastating what she’s seeing around her," she said. "People are running out of water and food so we have a lot of work to do."

Franzen spent much of Sunday afternoon with the Puerto Ricans in Minnesota Committee coordinating relief efforts.

Minnesota’s Puerto Rican diaspora is described as small, but mighty. At last census check an estimated 13,000 Puerto Ricans live in Minnesota.

“[They] are professionals and community leaders from the legal profession all the way to politics, government and corporate America, we have strong ties to the island just based on our corporate background,” Franzen said. “We can’t afford not to take immediate action--we know the Red Cross is working, we know FEMA is working, but that’s not going to be enough because of the severity of the devastation in Puerto Rico."

As the sun rises on a new week over the U.S. commonwealth, an all-too-real struggle for basic needs and an escape from Hurricane Maria’s devastation is underway.

“We can’t do this alone, I can’t do this alone, and we need to become not just a community of Puerto Ricans in Minnesota, but just Minnesotans that are trying to do good,” Franzen said.

Both women plan to volunteer with the American Red Cross to help Puerto Rico pick up the pieces.

A number of fundraising efforts promise to get relief to the people of Puerto Rico. You can learn more about each one by clicking on the links below:

  1. El Fondo Boricua (A fund of the St. Paul Foundation) is raising money for Hurricane Maria Relief in Puerto Rico
  2. Hurricanes Irma & Maria - Red Cross Response Expands
  3. Puerto Ricans helping Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
  4. Help Rebuild Puerto Rico
  5. Leslyann Velazquez’s personal fundraising effort
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