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NiLP Guest Commentary

On Uncle Pedro and the Hurricanes

By José Santiago

The NiLP Report

Like many Puerto Ricans stateside, I've spent the last several weeks horrified at the scale of the devastation that has ravaged my beautiful island. I have been desperate, like so many others, for news about our families, our hometowns, the efforts to restore basic services, the prospects of so many post-hurricane horrors like air and waterborne diseases. The stream of incoming emails and telephone calls from family and friends tell me that I am not alone. It has been an emotional nightmare for my beloved people, here as well as on the island.

The challenges on the island are dizzying, from housing those who have lost everything to care for the sick with scarce medication and hospital space, to clearing roads, ensuring the safety and delivery of drinking water and gaining an infrastructure foothold with which to restore commerce. Stateside, we spend countless hours discussing the island's needs. We all eventually settle on how to help, whether it is sending money, supplies or both, traveling to the island to help with the recovery or inviting family members to come and ride out what could be a long-term disaster in relative safety here in the states.

I worked as a reporter for many years, so some have called wondering if I have any inside news or insight on the situation in Puerto Rico. But having covered numerous disasters doesn't necessarily make you an expert on disasters, just as being a police officer doesn't automatically make you an expert on justice, nor a politician, an expert on leadership.

In the first days after the eye of the hurricane passed directly over my hometown, Naranjito, I spent much time trying to discern what had befallen my loved ones. I couldn't stop thinking about my 98-year-old uncle, Pedro, an Army veteran, who lost his wife a few years ago and was being cared for by one of his daughters at his home high atop a mountain, a house with as glorious a view as any human being can ever expect to gaze upon. I thought of his stunning white hair, his Hollywood good looks, and his ever-present smile and remembered the day I told him I considered him my father, now that his brother, my father, had died.

The two were inseparable. Their father had worked them hard. They laughed at hardship because they'd known so much of it. They possessed that quiet strength that grows out of the knowledge that one has loved, cared for and provided for others seeking nothing in return. They were the role models of role models - strong, loving, humble, and courageous. Whenever I visited Naranjito, after my father's death, I would go first to Uncle Pedro's home before going to mine. Sitting quietly with him on his porch was to be bathed in love. In the early days after hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, I worried about my uncle.

Thoughts of Uncle Pedro sent me searching for an old photograph I had of him in his Army uniform. He was so handsome. I found it along with a photo of another uncle, Rafael, who served in France during World War II. Everyone in the family knew that Uncle Ralph, as we called him, had received a Purple Heart for being wounded in combat but it wasn't until his death a few years back that his family discovered several other combat medals he'd received about which he had never spoken.

Uncle Ralph's daughter married a young Puerto Rican man who served in Vietnam. The son of a Protestant Minister, her husband, entered the U.S. military as a Conscientious Objector. He was willing to serve the country but unwilling to take another's life. He was trained as a Medic and earned several meritorious citations for saving the lives of an officer and an enlisted man under fire. One wounded soldier he tended to had suffered a frontal wound so massive there was no bandage large enough to contain the injury. My cousin placed him on a gurney and lay on top of him, holding onto the young man tightly to keep his guts from spilling out. Locked in a life-saving embrace, they were carried together to a medical unit where the wounded soldier could be treated.

Thinking about those in my family who served, I was also reminded of my grandfather, a preacher, who traveled from town to town on horseback in the days before paved roads. He often delivered mail to people in remote areas of Puerto Rico who rarely ventured into town. He was once said to have delivered a letter to a family saying their son was coming home from the war and the second letter to another family up the road informing them their son had been killed in combat. I remember my mother telling me that on that day one mother's fear turned to joy and another mother's fear turned to sorrow.

All of these things I contemplated as news about Puerto Rico focused on whether the president felt that helping the island recover from the hurricane would be too costly and as news coverage focused on political squabbling with barely a mention of the extraordinary resourcefulness and resilience of my fellow Puerto Ricans. I didn't see a thing about the 100 volunteers who gather at a Naranjito church every morning and fan out in crews to help anyone who needed assistance nor was there any reporting on how Naranjito men jumped into action the morning after the hurricane struck and cleared a major road within twenty-four hours. Similar efforts across the island are largely unreported.

Two weeks into the island's recovery, I finally heard from Uncle Pedro's caregiver, my cousin, but she was not calling from Puerto Rico, she was in the states. She'd come home for a brief break after hurricane Irma passed through, unaware that a second hurricane, Maria, was on its way. Now there were no flights, she said, she couldn't get back to Puerto Rico, she was frantic. A couple of days later, she called again and said Uncle Pedro and his house had survived, he was safe, and the family had decided to bring him to the states. He arrived last week. I worried about his fragile state at age 98 but was thrilled to now have a chance to see him again. He survived the historic hurricanes of the 1920s and '30s and now he had survived the most powerful hurricane since then. The family decided Uncle Pedro would be better off here because the veteran's hospital in Puerto Rico was only handling emergency cases, postponing routine clinic appointments. Much of the space at the VA hospital is filled with the unburied dead.

Yesterday, Uncle Pedro spent a sunny afternoon surrounded by his stateside children and grandchildren who were much relieved that he was here and safe. I am told that he enjoyed the day. This morning, Uncle Pedro died in his sleep.

Storms in the Caribbean are often life-altering events. Growing up in New York in the fifties and sixties, I often wondered why so many older Puerto Ricans couldn't remember dates. You'd ask them when they came to the states or when someone in the family had passed away, and they would answer two years before this storm or ten years after that storm. Now, I understand.

José Santiago was News Director at Pacifica Radio Station WBAI in New York for more than 20 years, and a TV news reporter with CBS and NBC affiliated stations in Hartford, CT and Philadelphia, PA. He attended Columbia University and was a graduate of the Michelle Clarke Fellowship Program for Minority Journalists at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Santiago is the recipient of numerous local and national journalistic awards for his reporting on a range of issue, including the most recent from Peace Action award that cited him "for his commitment to informed, truth-seeking reporting on peace and justice issues for the American public." He can be reached at prnewsman@verizon.net.


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