Hurricane heroes

Even as Puerto Ricans continue to rebuild after Hurricane Maria — the deadliest, most destructive, costliest storm ever to hit La Isla del Encanto —  they steady themselves for Atlantic hurricane season 2018, predicted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to be near- or above-normal this year. It’s been a year since Maria made landfall Sept. 20, 2017, leaving devastation in its wake.

In the aftermath of the natural disaster, many heroes rushed to save lives, restore power, and provide food, water and shelter on the island. Celebrities were among the first to pledge and encourage others to provide financial support, with Puerto Ricans Jennifer Lopez, Daddy Yankee, Marc Anthony and Fat Joe leading the charge. But many other humanitarians came forward in the days and weeks after Maria devastated the island.

We asked several of these altruists to reflect on the storm, their part in the response and recovery and the future of Puerto Rico. These are their stories:

The Celebrity Chef

When chef José Andrés heard Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, he instinctively understood two things: “I knew that most relief organizations don’t think about feeding people.” He arrived four days after Maria ripped through the island, and along with dozens of fellow chefs and cooks, quickly set a plan into motion setting up food kitchens and feeding people hot meals and familiar comfort food.

The second thing he knew was not to overstay his welcome. “We worked to reduce our operations quickly in order to let the local economy get back to full capacity. Now that things have mostly stabilized, we are working with farmers to help them rebuild and to get their products into markets and kitchens.

Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of its food, and Andrés notes this needs to change. It’s time for the island to return to its agricultural roots, he says, and he and others are working to make that a reality.

“We are establishing a farm cooperative and training center to support farmers so that the island can source more food locally,” Andrés says. “Now more than ever, the island and many other places need to be prepared for future disaster — practical, local, sustainable solutions are key. To me, the most important thing is building up resiliency and strength so that the island is able to come through another disaster in a better place.”

To date, World Central Kitchen (WCK), a nonprofit global network of chefs founded by Andrés after the deadly 2010 earthquake in Haiti, has served more than 3.6 million meals on the island through its #ChefsForPuertoRico campaign, which continues to feed people in remote areas of the island.

“We are still finding need in some small pockets on the island,” Andrés says. “We have three kitchens in operation serving thousands of meals a day to communities still in need.” At the height of operations, WCK and thousands of volunteers fed 100,000 people a day from two dozen kitchens across the island. This enormous feat resulted in a new book, We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, out this month. Portions of the proceeds are donated to the Chef Relief Network of WCK for Puerto Rico and beyond.

In addition to planning and preparation for future disasters, WCK’s focus has shifted to helping chefs and cooks on the island, awarding grants to rebuild kitchens and buy new equipment.

Andrés has long been inspired to give back by his parents, both of whom were “nurses who dedicated their lives to the service and the health of others,” and by Robert Egger, founder of L.A. Kitchen. “He taught me so much about giving, about being a good member of a community, a city, the world,” Andrés says. “Robert gave me one very important piece of advice: ‘Too often, charity is about the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver.’ I’ve kept this with me, and have worked to be a better listener, to give people the respect that they deserve, not to impose charity on them.”

The Smart Farmers

Two Puerto Ricans who could not agree more with Andrés that the territory must propagate its agricultural roots are Franco Marcano and Eduardo Burgos, owners of Cosechas Tierra Viva, the first “smart farm” on the island. Cosechas Tierra Viva roughly translates to “harvests from living soil.”

The storm, they say, highlighted Puerto Rico’s food insecurity. “As we import more than 85 percent of our food, we believe that agriculture should be a matter of national security,” says Marcano.

The self-described agro-entrepreneurs, both 28, are on a mission to increase the number of people farming  by growing more crops, using technology, fewer resources and limited land. It’s known as smart farming. By operating a small weather station on-site, the duo analyzes their farm’s microclimate and tailors planting and production to weather patterns. Their goal is to get other farmers to implement these methods, which will help improve crop management.

“We definitely want to encourage people to grow their own food and, most important, motivate young people to view agriculture as a viable alternative to the (island’s) economic crisis,” Burgos says.

Burgos, a sociologist, and Marcano, a mechanical engineer, are full-time farmers and employ two part-time employees on their small farm in Las Piedras. In addition to being agricultural advocates and growing their own food on 1 1/2 acres, they sell their greens, vegetables and fruits at local farmers markets, direct to consumers as well as to area restaurants.

Heading into their fourth growing season, the pair was preparing for the remnants of this year’s first threat, Tropical Storm Beryl, which spared the island but resulted in rain and flooding in some areas.

Hurricane Maria decimated the crops and fruit trees at Cosechas Tierra Viva. The farm’s building, which houses their home and business, suffered damage, and for 286 days, they were without power, which severely limited their production because they didn’t have necessary refrigeration to properly store their vegetables.

“Our biggest loss was the fruit trees, as it will take years for new ones to produce,” notes Burgos.

The storm, however, accelerated their efforts to become self-sustaining and advocate for ecological farming.

In the months since, they’ve made repairs and structural improvements to the building, as well as overall enhancements on the farm.

One such improvement involved doubling the size of their rainwater harvesting system. They currently use solar panels to power computers, lights and irrigation pumps.

A crowd-funding campaign also is underway to improve the farm’s renewable energy system. “In some ways, we have developed a self-sustainable life and this has helped us overcome the challenges of Maria,” Marcano says.

“We want to educate our fellow Puerto Ricans and tropical neighbors to join the farming movement and introduce them to a smarter farming model,” Burgos explains in the duo’s video submission for a scholarship to The Market Gardener’s Masterclass, an online course with Jean-Martin Fortier, farmer, educator and author.

“We are small farmers with big dreams,” says Burgos. “And we want to be a part of the change,” Marcano adds.

The Protean Creator

Playwright, rapper, composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda describes his visit to Puerto Rico with his family after Hurricane Maria as “surreal.”

“The destruction was far beyond comprehension,” Miranda says, “and never in my lifetime did I think I would bear witness to the aftermath of a catastrophe of this magnitude so up close.”

The Hamilton and In the Heights creator, who was born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents Luis A. Miranda Jr. and Luz Towns-Miranda was among the first to lend support to the island. To date, the Mirandas, who have made the island’s rebuilding and relief efforts a priority, have raised more than $35 million for the Unidos Disaster Relief and Recovery Program in partnership with the Hispanic Federation, a Latino nonprofit organization based in New York.

A portion of that funding came from the sales ofAlmost Like Praying, the lyrical love letter that Miranda wrote and recruited 22 artists — including Jennifer Lopez, Rita Moreno, Luis Fonsi, John Leguizamo and Anthony Ramis — to record in a span of two weeks.

The funds, Miranda says, “are being used toward creating long-term, sustainable, community-driven initiatives in multiple areas including agriculture, health, social services, energy, education, entrepreneurship and technologies.”

To say he was and continues to be moved by the strength and spirit of Puerto Ricans is an understatement. “What I remember the most, which still uplifts me, is the resilience and strength of the Puerto Rican people, who always remained optimistic and joined hands to help each other when government failed to respond fairly and proportionately,” Miranda says.

Through social media and interviews, Miranda has made clear his dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump and the federal government’s response to Puerto Rico’s crisis.

“Too little, too late. Then and now,” Miranda says. “While I am grateful for what the federal government has done, it took weeks for them to respond to the catastrophe and the response has never, to this date, matched the urgency nor the scope of what is needed for a crisis of this magnitude. Thousands of Puerto Ricans — U.S. citizens — died; thousands others have had to leave their island for places foreign to them across the U.S. mainland, and thousands more face an uncertain future on the island.”

Miranda, who says he sees his role as a megaphone for people in Puerto Rico, is not one to let up. One year after the hurricane, he says it’s important “to remind officials in Washington, D.C., that there is still so much more work to be done, and that rebuilding Puerto Rico and delivery of all aid will take years.”

Miranda is also using his voice to promote tourism to Puerto Rico by launching the “And Peggy” tour of his Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton in San Juan in January, where he will reprise his role for three weeks. The performance will undoubtedly be emotional for Miranda, who has long dreamed of taking the show to Puerto Rico. “I have never played a performance of Hamilton in which Puerto Rico hasn’t come to my mind. There are so many themes in the show that remind me of the island. Actually, there would not be a Hamilton musical if it wasn’t for Puerto Rico. It is the birthplace of my ancestors, and since I first read Chernow’s biography, I have equated Alexander Hamilton’s journey with the story of my own father, who left Puerto Rico at a young age in pursuit of the American dream.”

 

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