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RI POLITICS

In Puerto Rico, Central Falls mayor and Elisha Project co-founder bring aid and comfort

Mayor Rivera, who has family on the island, traveled during her vacation time to help the Elisha Project group distribute 30,000 pounds of food and supplies, including water, bread, and milk, plus $10,000 in gift cards

Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, left, receives a hug from a resident of Ponce, Puerto Rico, after a Rhode Island group provided the woman with gallons of water.Courtesy of Maria Rivera

PROVIDENCE — At age 106, he has nine children, but only one remains in Puerto Rico. Like many other older residents, he has watched his children move away from the Caribbean island where 43 percent of the population lives in poverty.

When Hurricane Fiona slammed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 19, he lost power to his house, along with the rest of the island.

But by Thursday, he and his daughter had managed to hook up to power from their neighbor’s generator. And he received another boost when the mayor of Central Falls, Maria Rivera, stopped by to deliver a $25 gift card – and to dance the merengue with him.

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“He loves to dance,” Rivera told the Globe by phone Friday. “He said that when he passes away he wants there to be merengue at his funeral. He’s the oldest fisherman on the island. His daughter told us how she puts him in a wheelchair and takes him to local restaurants, but once he gets up, he starts dancing.”

Rivera said she and the Rev. George L. Ortiz Jr., co-founder of the Elisha Project, have been in Puerto Rico this week as part of a Rhode Island contingent that’s delivering $25 gift cards, water, bread, and medicine to residents still reeling after Hurricane Fiona dumped up to 30 inches of rain on the island.

She said she met the 106-year-old man, whose name she did not know, while they were in Isabela, a town in the northwestern part of Puerto Rico. After dancing a while on his porch, she said she made sure he sat down because she was afraid he would fall. “But he got right back up,” she said.

Rivera said 80 percent of the island has regained power, but the electricity comes and goes. People are desperate for diesel fuel for generators, they are trying to find ice to preserve their food, and there are water shortages on parts of the island, she said.

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Rivera said she came to Puerto Rico on her vacation time, not in her mayoral capacity. Her family moved from Puerto Rico to Chicago in 1971 and then to Central Falls in 1987. Although she was not born in Puerto Rico, she said, “This is my second home.” And she has aunts, uncles, and cousins on the island.

Nearly 52,000 Rhode Island residents have Puerto Rican heritage, according to the US Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.

Ortiz said he also has cousins and in-laws in Puerto Rico. In June 2011, he and his wife formed the Elisha Project, a nonprofit food rescue operation named for a prophet and “wonder-worker” whose story is told in the Book of Kings in the Hebrew Bible. And now, the Pawtucket-based organization is planning to open an office in Puerto Rico.

This week, the Elisha Project group had distributed 30,000 pounds of food and supplies, including water, bread, and milk, plus $10,000 in gift cards and 300 pounds of over-the-counter medicine, he said.

And on Friday morning, they were waiting for a boat to arrive with supplies such as batteries, diapers, feminine products, soup, and peanut butter, Ortiz said. Three vehicles will then distribute those items across the island.

Individual donors provided about $3,000 for the effort, but much of the funding came from the Elisha Project and many of the supplies came from partnerships with vendors such as Woonsocket-based CVS Health, he said.

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“The people of the island are resilient and tired of the lack of infrastructure,” Ortiz said. “There are many still without power. The most affected appear to be seniors alone.”

He said he saw the damage done by flooding caused by Hurricane Fiona.

“Imagine water running through the city of Providence up to people’s stoves, four or five feet high, and when it recedes the sediment, the mud remains,” Ortiz said. “After nine days, the water is gone, but the smell remains. It smells like a waste dump. How do you fix that?”

People are scrubbing their walls and putting Clorox in power washers, he said.

“I saw a bunch of muddy, moldy mattresses lined up,” Ortiz said. “They can’t afford new ones, so they are letting them dry out because they have to sleep on them. In a month, I’ll try to come back with tons of mattresses.”

He said the problems are compounded by the fact that many residents are still trying to bounce back from Hurricane Maria, which pounded Puerto Rico five years ago.

“The problem in Puerto Rico is the infrastructure,” Ortiz said. “If it was a state, if it was Alabama, the power grid wouldn’t look the way it is. The whole world is vacationing on the beaches of Puerto Rico while the people of the country live in abject poverty. What needs to happen is we need to treat it like a state and stop treating it like a colony.”

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Rivera said she supports making Puerto Rico, a US territory of 3.3 million residents, a state. “If we were a state, we don’t have to beg for resources,” she said.

Rivera said she hopes Puerto Rico is not overlooked as attention shifts to Florida, which was just hit by Hurricane Ian. “Don’t forget us,” she said. “We are US citizens. We are not second-class citizens.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.