Ernesto Velasquez Perez, 76, of Daguao, Naguabo, is like many elderly people in Puerto Rico, being urged by children in the United States to leave the island territory and come to the mainland.
“I hope help comes because I don’t want to go. I want to die here in Puerto Rico,” reflects Perez to the Red Cross workers standing on his porch. Ernesto believes if he leaves the island, he will never return. “What choice do I have? You just have to move forward as best you can,” he said.
Nearly one in five of the island’s residents are over 65. With age comes medical problems and mobility challenges. When Hurricanes Irma and Maria leveled a one-two punch on Puerto Rico, the effects of limited water, power, medical access, isolation and other scarcities have hit the older population hardest.
“I have not spoken with my daughter in Florida since before the storm,” Perez admitted in response to the Red Cross worker’s questions. His cell phone has not worked since Hurricane Maria got it wet. Without any cell service in the area, he wouldn’t be able to call her anyway. The Red Cross workers got a charging brick from the car and plugged in his phone. Within a minute, it lit up.
A Red Cross volunteer gave him a hand crank charger and trained him to use it. “It’s the same as grinding coffee back in the day,” joked 62 year-old Angel Ramos, a Puerto Rico Red Cross volunteer and veteran of the wars in Viet Nam and Iraq. “The exercise will do you good and lift your spirits,” Angel told him, adding the charging brick can take the phone to a full charge in about half an hour.
The team visiting Ernesto is a Red Cross reunification team. Red Cross reunification teams have been combing the island looking for the family members of nearly 1,500 people who called the Red Cross to say they couldn’t get in touch with their loved ones. Many of these so-called “Emergency Welfare Inquiries” came from adult children in the mainland US unable to reach their elderly parents.
Knowing how important that personal connection is, the team offered to send Ernesto’s daughter in Florida a photo of him holding a message for her. They gave him a pen and a whiteboard and he asked one of the volunteers to write for him.
The elderly man dictated, “Dear Yamilka, I am alive,” and broke down in tears. The Red Cross volunteer then wrote down the rest of the message and took a picture of Perez holding it to send to his daughter.
The Red Cross team recognized the signs of prolonged stress in the man and encouraged him to tell them more about his experience during the storm and about his life.
Ernesto lives over an open garage that served as his workshop when he worked as a car painter and welder. Before that, he was a fisherman. The stairs leading up to his living area are steep and he complains about his “bad legs.” Salvaged wood from the top story of his home is piled on the porch and a ladder leans against the roof. Without the second story, rainwater is seeping into every room in the house. Three rooms and the bathroom are completely uninhabitable, with mold on the ceilings, furniture, and standing water on the floors.
“As a child, I slept in a hammock,” he said, entering the living room, “and now I’m sleeping in a hammock again.” Buckets, open coolers and pots scattered on the floor catch water that drips from the ceiling when it rains. “I have to keep moving the hammock when it rains because the leaks are chasing me.” Water drips on his stove too, but at least it’s a propane stove so he can cook in spite of being without electricity. His church has brought water and food.
Perez told the Red Cross team that the pharmacy will only give him a three-day supply of his cardiac medicine because of shortages. The pill bottle sits on the table empty. He is re-using insulin syringes, although he was able to get a full bottle of insulin. The team assured Ernesto that they will send some Red Cross nurses to check on him.
Ernesto has a tarp, but cannot climb the ladder to the roof to place it. However, debris needs to be cleared first. The Red Cross team referred his case to the Southern Baptist roofers that are working in Naguabo, hoping that our trusted partners in disaster response can help Ernesto remain in his home as he wishes.
How You Can Help
Ernesto’s story is just one example of how hard life remains for many people in Puerto Rico. The Red Cross is on the ground responding to this devastating storm and needs financial donations to be able to provide immediate disaster relief for those affected. Help people affected by Hurricane Maria by visiting redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS or texting the word MARIA to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Donations enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from this disaster.