New York City comes together to support Puerto Rico

There is a simple message written on the donation bin outside The Pride of the Lower East Side, the firehouse for Engine 28, Ladder 11: “Puerto Rico needs your help.”

Toss in one or a few of the sanctioned products the city has been accepting at this and 17 other sites — items like baby food, diapers, or batteries.

“It’s amazing,” Capt. Brian Lynch says just inside the firehouse, where a pile of full black garbage bags and cartons were stored temporarily. Some days, he said, multiple city trucks were needed to pick up the donations. NYC Emergency Management is collecting and sending the supplies to Puerto Rico, a major undertaking because of how many people want to donate and the logistical nightmare of getting the goods where they need to go.

It’s a nightmare that began a week ago after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, leaving more than a million people with no drinking water or power. At least sixteen people have died, with many more lives threatened, as New Yorkers like many Americans scramble to help.

On Wednesday, a woman from Kensington, Brooklyn, came by to drop off diapers and feminine hygiene products on the way to work. The owner of a nearby vintage store saw the handwritten note taped to the bin — “no clothes please” — and said he’d have to think of another way to donate.

And an employee of Suffolk Arms, a cocktail bar on East Houston, stopped by to scout what the city would accept. Because, he explained, his boss and the bar itself had “quite a bit.”

It was an understatement. The bar was clean and airy even before 11 a.m., but it was packed with supplies. Two neighborhood bartenders walked in the open door carrying more imperishables. “There’s more coming,” they said.

Giuseppe Gonzalez, 41, the bar owner, was there to thank them. “The Irish and English never fail,” he said.

Gonzalez himself is from Puerto Rico and hadn’t had much sleep over the week, trying to get in touch with aunts and uncles, grand and godmothers. Days later, some still could not be reached. “We’re hurricane people,” he said, fingering a flatbrim hat with “PR” on the front, “but I’m not familiar with anything like this.” The closed hospitals, lack of fuel, feet of rain; this week Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló called it a “humanitarian disaster.”

Gonzalez substituted action for worry, emailing friends and acquaintances in the bar industry requesting aid right after the hurricane hit. It came in bags from friends in New York, and in Amazon Prime boxes from barflies in other states. He’d promised to get the packages where they needed to go, but now that presented its own problems.

The outburst of generosity is heartwarming, but the hard part is getting the supplies in the hands of those people who need them.

That “last mile” is particularly difficult in Puerto Rico, says Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. After being slammed by the elements, the island now has impassable roads and a shortage of drivers, among other issues, says Redlener.

Sometimes well-meaning generosity can miss the mark: Redlener remembered being in Guatemala after a natural disaster in the 1970s and seeing an aircraft hangar filled with nylon stockings, candy, toys, expired drug samples.

He commended New York, on the other hand, for sending usable goods.

Those items have a difficult road ahead of them: first, trucked in shipping containers down to a vessel in Key West, to be sent to San Juan.

There, an Emergency Management team is setting up a distribution center with that city’s mayor.

NYC and New York State have been looking for cargo space on flights, and the state is making use of the SUNY Maritime-owned ship Empire State VI in Florida, too.

“It seems to be getting even worse,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday of the situation on the island with so many ties to New York.

At Suffolk Arms, Gonzalez began separating the supplies into piles of what places like NYC would accept and ship, and what they wouldn’t. He had clothes, for example, which are often seen as mostly a burden, but he had a lead on a place in the Bronx that might accept them. He wished he could just send packages himself, simply get them on a plane to those in need, though he knew this was virtually impossible.

“We’re doing this indefinitely,” he said, “until this is over.”