Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone
Photos by Michael Bucella
Michael Bucella visited Puerto Rico to help those affected by Hurricane Maria.

Long Island City resident Michael Bucella has no ties to Puerto Rico but after hearing about the devastation plaguing the island weeks after Hurricane Maria hit, he decided to take action.

Bucella, who works in finance, was at a work meeting discussing the island’s debt when the group began to talk about the lack of power and clean water in the area. Soon after, he booked a flight to Puerto Rico and for three days traveled around the island handing out supplies and meeting those most acutely affected by the hurricane.

“I’m not Puerto Rican,” he said. “I don’t have any friends in Puerto Rico. The reaction I got from everybody was, ‘Are you crazy? There’s nothing left.'”

Dan Matias (left) and Michael Bucella (right)

Bucella and a local who hadn’t received help since the hurricane hit

Bucella left on the morning of Oct. 6 with two bags of supplies and stayed in a hostel called The Mango Mansion in Condado, Puerto Rico. He landed on an island with no power, no drinking water, no diesel and where temperatures topped 90 degrees everyday.

“I got a bed, one of four beds in a corner room with no windows, no ventilation,” he said. “I had to leave my door open all night. It was probably 90 degrees and we were eaten alive by mosquitoes.”

Though Bucella registered with several volunteer organizations “last minute” he hadn’t heard from them and four hours into his stay, he began to get antsy and decided to chat with his hostel mates.

The people he met came from all over the country and for different reasons. He met a nurse, Glenda from Connecticut, Dan Matias, a 70-year-old Chicago resident who was born in Puerto Rico and a couple from Chicago who came down to try to find their mother— who they hadn’t heard from in three weeks.

Matias, who was also a Vietnam veteran, decided to rent a truck to hand out supplies himself. Bucella joined him and the pair — on some days they were accompanied by Glenda and others — traversed the island to help in any way they could.

What Bucella saw throughout his stay was “terrible, enlightening, inspiring, sad but also unifying,” he said.

A family gathers water from a pvc pipe.

A family gathers water from a pvc pipe.

The group left the hostel around 7:30 a.m. every morning and visited a number of towns including AreciboUtuado, which Bucella said was one of the worst hit, CarolinaRio Grande and others.

Many people Bucella came across asked him if he was from FEMA or the Red Cross. Many also told him that they hadn’t seen anyone from agencies since the hurricane hit.

“They said, ‘We haven’t had drinking water. We’re waiting on rain water to come down [to drink it],'” he was told.

Bucella said the people he spoke to lived too far from grocery stores or gas stations. Many were elderly or had children and could not travel far for supplies. The desperation was most starkly apparent when he saw one man snacking on cat food.

“I went initially with the thought of helping and being excited to do it and left angry,” he said. “There are a lot of folks that have not seen any support whatsoever.”

Families wash their clothes in a stream.

Families wash their clothes in a stream.

When the rain did come, it was torrential. The streets would turn into rivers and people scrambled to pump water out of their previously flooded homes.

Bucella and other volunteers would visit grocery stores every morning to purchase supplies and the only place he could take cash out was at a casino in San Juan. While casinos and major hotels had power — they were housing military officials, Red Cross and FEMA personnel — so many other places he visited were powerless.

“Supplies are not getting distributed as quickly as they need to be or as equitably as they need to be,” he said.

IMG_5198 (1) A supermarket in Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rican government has been updating this website with progress it has made in terms of getting power, water, diesel and hospitals up and running. Though government officials report that 45 people have died as a result of the hurricane, disaster experts and Puerto Rican media are arguing that the figure could actually be in the hundreds.

Since diesel is scarce for people who are not in major cities, those who need medical care cannot access the services they need. On his way back to New York, Bucella spoke to a Puerto Rican man in his 80s who was traveling to St. Louis for medical care.

His right leg was badly damaged in the hurricane and while the doctors on the island provided him with urgent care, they told the man that they could not provide him with the follow up treatment that was needed. So he and his wife made the decision to pack their bags and visit family in St. Louis to seek medical attention.

“It takes a lot to get emotion out of me and there were moments where I almost broke down a bit,” he said.

IMG_5212

Though he saw a lot of devastation, Bucella said the spirit of the Puerto Rican people was inspiring.

When visiting Usuado, he came across an elderly woman sitting outside of her house. The extreme heat and lack of power forced people to spend much of their time outside of their homes, Bucella said.

When he gave her batteries, flashlights and soap “her eyes lit up.” When he asked if she wanted more supplies she responded, ‘I know my neighbors need this, too. I’m only going to take what I need right now.'”

“I thought that was very touching,” he said. “I would’ve guessed that would not be the way most people would handle that situation.”

IMG_4910

Bucella said he was also inspired by the people he met at his hostel who would watch the sun rise with him every morning and talk about their lives and what inspired them to come to the island. After coming back to the hostel around 5 p.m. — it was too dangerous to drive after dark because the roads were still littered with wires and debris — they would strategize and map out their course for the next day.

Though Bucella said there were many people on the ground near San Juan, from military personnel to FEMA, there is still more to be done. Bucella said President Donald Trump, who has been criticized for his handling of the crisis, may not have witnessed the full effect of the storm because he only visited San Juan.

“Unless you’re in a hostel like I was in and you’re not in the higher end [towns] you don’t feel the damage,” he said. “You have no idea how bad it is.”

IMG_5213

Bucella also touched down on the same day Vice President Michael Pence did. The main highway was shut down to accommodate him and the couple he met from Chicago was stuck in traffic for six hours as a result, he said.

“It’s so difficult to get people out of the island,” he said. “You’re probably stalling ambulances and people like myself. Stuff like that frustrated the hell out of me.”

Bucella said he is politically unbiased but “the fact that in three weeks they haven’t gotten to certain villages and towns — that’s inexcusable.”

Bucella said there were at least 100 people waiting on line for ice.

Bucella said there were at least 100 people waiting on line for ice.

The Queens native has booked another trip and is headed to the island again from Oct. 26 through Oct. 30. He will collect supplies — as much as one person can carry — and will also collect money through Venmo or PayPal so that he can purchase and distribute supplies while he is there.

“I’ve always donated to charities but the frustration that I have now with what little progress I saw on the island, it’s led me kinda toward this path of anyone who wants to donate should find someone who is taking direction action,” he said. “It’s amazing how far $100 and $50 can go to someone who is in a Walgreens and Walmart buying supplies.”

Bucella plans to meet up with Matias, who presented him with a Vietnam veteran hat signed by hostel mates when he left and is still on the island providing help, and hopes to make whatever positive impact he can, he said.

IMG_5225

“I came home [on Oct. 10] and was depressed that I couldn’t stay longer and do more,” he said. “There are so many different ways to describe the feeling you have when you’re there and the trick is knowing that every little ounce of help helps.”

If you would like to donate supplies or cash, reach out to Bucella at michael.bucella@gmail.com.

You can also donate to the Hispanic Federation or Unidos por Puerto Rico help victims affected by Hurricane Maria.

Bucella (middle) and Glenda (second from right) and Matias with a family in Utuado.

Bucella (middle) and Glenda (second from right) and Matias with a family in Utuado.

IMG_5202

Matias with a local

Matias with his 91-year-old cousin. He was attending church, which took place outside.

IMG_5221 (1)

A bag of supplies that Bucella brought on his trip.

A bag of supplies that Bucella brought on his trip.

The Mango Mansion

The Mango Mansion

IMG_5203 (1)

Comments:

Join The Discussion



Related Stories
Velazquez bill to regulate death counts following natural disasters clears the House
Velazquez bill to regulate death counts following natural disasters clears the House
Flushing gallery to display original artwork from young survivors of Hurricane Maria
Flushing gallery to display original artwork from young survivors of Hurricane Maria
Popular Stories
Serial robber targeting women riding Q65 bus in Flushing and Fresh Meadows: cops
Two critically injured in blaze above a storefront on Bell Boulevard in Bayside
These Queens neighborhoods saw increases in average rental prices during 2018


Skip to toolbar