By AndrewA KornackiAugust 21, 2018
We have all read stories about the numerous first responders who rushed to Puerto Rico to help the people of the island recover after hurricanes Irma and Maria; this is not one of those stories. This story is about how two Puerto Ricans put their lives on hold and made significant sacrifices to aid those in need after the storm.
Evelyn Alejandro-Rios and Ricardo Colón-Torres are husband and wife who live in a small community in Fajardo, located in the northeast corner of Puerto Rico. They have experienced numerous hurricanes but they say Maria was the worst, "FUERTE!"
"We stayed here in our house," said Ricardo. "I went to bed around 8:00 p.m. but at 1:00 a.m. the storm was so intense it woke me up, and I did not go back to sleep until it passed. Winds were so strong they forced the window open allowing water to get into the house, and at one point I had to go outside to remove debris to prevent water in the street from backing up into the house."
In the 61 years they've lived on the island, it was the worst damage they had ever experienced. They had no water, no lights and no gasoline.
"We had some damage to the roof of our house, we lost a small closet outside, had no water for a month, and no electricity for three months," said Evelyn. "But it wasn't only us, our neighbors needed help. Some are older and could not do things for themselves, so we helped. For months my husband and I would work from sun up to sun down, cleaning our yard and our neighbors' yards. Each day we would wake up and do it all over again."
But the couple did not stop at just cleaning yards. They knew more people were suffering, and that is when they decided to get into their pick-up truck and take action.
Three weeks after the storm passed, they began gathering items from distribution centers or wherever they could find various items, like diapers, wipes, food, water, clothes, shoes, toys, hygiene products and other items. They loaded their truck and drove north, south, east and west to get the supplies to those who needed them the most.
"It was a very trying time of my life. There were many long days loading the truck, driving around the island, and unloading the truck-often with no way of communicating other than going door to door. Every week for five months we would deliver five pallets of water and 520 bags of food," said Ricardo. "That was not the hardest part. Driving into communities with no houses and seeing the children with nothing, it was the first time for MY Puerto Rico."
"My Puerto Rico." The statement alone shows the love he and his wife have for the island, and their commitment to do whatever they could to provide aid.
"That was always how they were," said Carmen Patino, a Corps of Engineers Real Estate Specialist serving with Task Force Recovery, and the childhood neighbor of the couple. "I will never forget the numerous times they helped my mother throughout the years with painting her house inside and out, taking care of her lawn or simply giving her a ride to church. When the electricity was out, they had a generator and supplied my mother with power to give herself her daily asthma treatments. That is something I will be eternally grateful for."
Evelyn and Ricardo have become leaders in the community and have even begun to organize groups to distribute items, while continuing to deliver items personally. They credit their faith for giving them the strength, and for the opportunity and ability to help their community.
"When all is said and done and we look back on the response and recovery here in Puerto Rico, I don't think all the credit will go to the Corps of Engineers, FEMA, or the many other local, state and federal agencies," said Patino. "The community, not just Evelyn and Ricardo, came together and helped each other. Because after a disaster, you cannot wait; you have to help yourself."