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Hurricane Maria

SUNY students work together with the nonprofit Nechama to repair roofs in Puerto Rico. Photo from Joseph WanderVaag

As Puerto Rico continues to recover a year after Hurricane Maria left devastation in its wake, some college students reflected on lasting memories of their missions to the island to offer help and support.

Joe VanderWaag helps to repair a roof in Puerto Rico. Photo from Joseph VanderWaag

This past summer more than 650 State University of New York and City University of New York students along with skilled labor volunteers helped to repair homes on the island through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) New York Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative, according to the governor’s website. During a 10-week span, five deployments of volunteers worked on the island with the goal of repairing the roofs of 150 homes. By the end of the summer, the volunteers fixed the roofs of 178.

Peter Velz, SUNY assistant vice chancellor for external affairs, said since October 2017 the university system was working on engagement with Puerto Rico. On March 16 students from SUNY Alfred State and Geneseo went down for a week.

He said he believes the interaction with the homeowners was probably the most impactful for the students, and the residents they met in Puerto Rico tried to pay them back the best they could.

“It wasn’t paying them back financially,” Velz said. “Kids would make them bracelets or kids would make them pictures or the families would make them lunch. I really think that was probably the most lasting impact for the students, was working in the homes with the homeowners and providing them shelter.”

Rebecca Mueller, one of 21 Stony Brook University students who volunteered, traveled to the island in July, as did Joseph VanderWaag, who attends Suffolk County Community College’s Ammerman Campus.

“I wish there was more that we could do. But I think that the main goal for the organization, while we were there, was to make it livable at that point.”

— Rebecca Mueller

Mueller, 23, of Coram, a graduate student working toward her master’s in social work, said when she received an email from SBU looking for students to travel to Puerto Rico she knew she had to help.

“I knew things there still weren’t that great from hearing different stories, and I felt like not as much help was given to them as it should have been,” she said. “So, when I saw an opportunity where I could actually help to do something, I knew I couldn’t pass it up.”

VanderWaag, 20, of Smithtown, who is in his last semester at SCCC, echoed those sentiments.

“It was so devastating to see that these were our citizens not really getting any help,” he said.

Traveling to Catano and surrounding towns where her group was working, Mueller said she saw houses with no roofs, windows or doors. She worked on three homes during her stay, and said the students would climb to the top of roofs and roofers with the nonprofit NECHAMA — Jewish Response to Disaster showed them what to do.

Rebecca Mueller, above right, and a friend get ready to patch leaks with cement. Photo from Rebecca Mueller

Two of the buildings she worked on had second stories before Hurricane Maria, but the upper levels were destroyed by the storm, and the volunteers had to turn what was left into roofs by scraping up tiles, finding cracks, grinding them to open them up and then sealing with cement. The volunteers then primed and sealed the new roofs to make them waterproof.

“I wish there was more that we could do,” Mueller said “But I think that the main goal for the organization, while we were there, was to make it livable at that point. Because they couldn’t even live in the houses because every time it rained water was pouring through the ceiling.”

Mueller said she also helped to clean out one man’s bedroom that was unlivable after water damage from the storm. The room had mold and bugs, and his bed, clothes and other items needed to be thrown out.

VanderWaag said the homeowners he met didn’t have a lot of money so whenever there was a leak they would go to the hardware store for a quick fix to patch the roof. When the students weren’t working, he said they would talk to community members about the hurricane’s devastation and the response from the U.S.

“They are a mixture of upset, angry and feeling just almost betrayed,” he said.

VanderWaag said he’ll always remember how appreciative the homeowners were and how one woman cried after they were done. Her husband who was in his 70s would try his best to fix the leaks by carrying bags of concrete up a ladder and patching the leaks.

“It was a huge burden lifted off their shoulders,” VanderWaag said.

“They are a mixture of upset, angry and feeling just almost betrayed.”

— Joseph VanderWaag

Mueller said one family cooked lunch for her group and others working on the house next door every day. She said the students had time to sightsee, and when one tour guide heard what they were doing, he offered to take them on a free tour of the south side of the island. Both she and VanderWaag also visited Old San Juan and saw historic military forts during their trips.

“It really was a life-changing experience,” Mueller said. “Even the people I met from the other SUNY schools, we became so close so quick.”

Pascale Jones, SBU international programs coordinator, joined students for a week to help out. She said when she saw the students in action, she was amazed at how much they already knew about construction and found the whole experience to be humbling.

Originally from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jones said she is used to seeing a certain level of devastation but was surprised to see the state of some of the homes.

“It’s Puerto Rico and these are U.S. citizens,” Jones said. “So, I did not expect this devastation so long after the hurricane’s passing. To think, U.S. citizens are living in a way that I would almost equate to a third world country.”

Freddy Rivera and Matthew Hu face off at Mission Fencing. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

After devastation struck Puerto Rico in the form of Hurricane Maria in September, members of Puerto Rico’s national fencing team reached out to anyone willing to lend a hand.

Hearing of Team Puerto Rico’s plight, Rocky Point’s Mission Fencing Center owners Jeff and Jennie Salmon quickly opened their doors so the team could train for an upcoming international competition, and many of the fencers were more than thankful.

“As my family and a lot of my friends said it was like a blessing for this family to reach out to us and give us the opportunity [to train],” said 17-year-old épéeist Freddie Rivera, who calls Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico home. “Ever since I got the news that we had this opportunity, I wanted to meet them. They gave us their house too, and to take us to this place [Mission Fencing] — that takes a lot of effort.”

Members of Mission Fencing Center helped host members of Team Puerto Rico, on podium at back row, who had no place to train in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Photo by Bill Landon

Salmon, a Comsewogue High School graduate and varsity boys fencing coach for Ward Melville, said housing and feeding the fencers, as well as providing transportation to his 30,000-square-foot subterranean training facility on Route 25A, which he said is the largest in the country,
wasn’t as difficult as it might sound.

Mission Fencing Center owns a bus that already transports athletes from across Long Island to and from the center, and the Salmons have plenty of space in their old mission church home in Mount Sinai, from where the center got its name. He said this, along with local contributions, made accommodations for the four-week stay accommodations simple. Karina Del Mar Pagan, a 19-year-old from Carolina, Puerto Rico, said each member of her eight-person group paid for his or her plane ticket, and the Salmons took care of the rest.

“Fifteen years ago Jennie and I bought our home and ran a fencing clinic out of the extra space,” Salmon said. “We didn’t have the finances to support [Team Puerto Rico], but we live in an old church, which we still run camps out of in the summer, so we have a bunch of beds and have plenty of room. We have some pretty nice housing for them.”

The fencing community demonstrated its generosity by holding food drives and 50/50 raffles since the guests landed Dec. 11, as well as by donating hats, gloves and other cold-weather items to help the Caribbean team adjust to the temperature. The group also received home items like paper towels and laundry detergent.

“It was like a blessing for this family to reach out to us and give us the opportunity [to train].”

—Freddie Rivera

“Today we went to the laundromat and the minute one of the girls stepped outside she said, ‘Oh my God, here we go again,’” Jeff Salmon said, laughing. “The team doesn’t like the cold, but they all have coats and gloves because everyone really stepped [up]. Everyone is so excited that they’re here and the whole Long Island fencing community has been great.”

His wife heard of Team Puerto Rico’s predicament through Iris Zimmermann, who co-owns the Rochester Fencing Club, and said she immediately knew she wanted to get involved in any way she could.

“I guess I just took the bull by the horns,” Jennie Salmon said. “And now USA Fencing federation is even involved in helping them.”

Carlos Quiles, a 24-year-old Carolina, Puerto Rico, resident chaperoning his group of eight fencers, said he was connected with the Salmons after pleading to his fencing federation president that they needed a place to train after seeing his club’s flooded headquarters.

“When we saw that our club was completely destroyed, the head of our fencing federation went to a meeting to make a plan as to what we were going to do,” Quiles said, adding that the organization reached out to anyone in the United States and beyond. “That’s when Mission Fencing found us and [Jeff Salmon] told us he wanted us to come here. We couldn’t be more grateful.”

Team Puerto Rico took to the strips of Mission Fencing Center Dec. 15, where its members showed off their international flare while competing against local Long Island fencers like Ward Melville épéeist Ben Rogak.

Rivera said he was excited to challenge himself and partake in a unique experience, one that provided a first for the young athlete.

The group’s chaperone, Carlos Quiles, trains against fencing center member and Ward Melville junior Cat Cao to secure his position on the Puerto Rico national team. Photo by Bill Landon

“I’m so thankful for this opportunity,” he said while fencing inside the center as snow began to fall. “This is my third trip to the United States — [having previously visited] Mexico and Costa Rica — and this time, I’m a proud member of the junior national team. This is also the first time I’ve ever seen snow.”

Rogak said he also enjoyed competing against fencers he’s never seen before, and said that he admired their dedication. Jennie Salmon agreed.

“They’ve been awesome guests,” she said. “We’ve had press based on our success as high school coaches, and at some level we’re very proud of that, but that isn’t even close to our biggest success. What we’re doing here is so meaningful.”

Before returning home, the Mission Fencing Center bus will take the team to Virginia, where it will be joined by its other members from around the country to compete.

Rivera reiterated how happy he was to learn from Long Island’s established athletes, adding it’s been helpful as programs at home begin to take flight.

“In Puerto Rico we are starting to have leagues in high school — we are taking baby steps,” he said. “This is a super club, [Mission Fencing]. It’s complete with a gym, trainers, and I’m thankful for this opportunity. Jeff and Jennie like to help people, and there are not a lot of good people that open their homes like that in the world. I have to say that they have big hearts and they’re full of love.”

Dr. R. Trevor Marshall, right, consults with a New York Presbyterian Hospital nurse while assisting patients at a coliseum in Manati. Photo by Alejandro Granadillo

Many in Puerto Rico still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Maria recently received much-needed medical care from a local Long Island hospital.

There were 23 staff members from Stony Brook Medicine stationed on the island from Oct. 24 to Nov. 8 as part of a 78-member relief team consisting of professionals from New York metropolitan hospitals. Three physicians, two nurse practitioners, nine nurses, four paramedics, four nursing assistants and one pharmacist from Stony Brook put their skills to use to help those with physical aliments and relieve overloaded hospitals in Puerto Rico.

The Coliseo Juan Aubin Cruz  Abreu “Bincito” in Manati, Puerto Rico, was the temporary workplace of 19 from Stony Brook, while four others assisted at Hospital HIMA San Pablo-Fajardo for a week, followed by another seven days on the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort, which is docked in Old San Juan.

Dr. R. Trevor Marshall, emergency physician and director of Emergency Medical Services at Stony Brook, said he and 18 others worked with the Disaster Medical Assistance Teams — part of the National Disaster Medical System — Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Army at the coliseum in Manati.

“It was a nice way to be able to provide additional resources down there to help the local community,” he said.

The grateful husband of a patient wears a Stony Brook Medicine hat while serenading the medical staff. Photo by Alejandro Granadillo

The physician said the staff members treated patients with diarrhea, conjunctivitis, abscesses, severe cuts and broken bones. Marshall said the patients were appreciative, and the staff was grateful for local high school and college students who volunteered their time to translate. The South Setauket resident said it was his first medical relief trip, and he’s open to volunteering for another one in the future due to his positive experience in Puerto Rico.

“This was an outstanding opportunity,” Marshall said.

Dr. Richard Scriven, associate professor of surgery and pediatrics at Stony Brook University, was one of the doctors working alongside Marshall at the coliseum. While driving from the airport to the arena he said he could see half of the homes were covered with the tarps that the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided to protect the houses that lost roofs during the Category 5 hurricane.

He said the staff would alternate working 12-hour shifts, slept on cots in the mezzanine section and bathed in outdoor showers. Scriven said food was provided from the local veterans agency, nearby residents and appreciative patients who bought them pizzas.

The physicians said DMAT tents were set up outside the arena, where many patients were treated for minor ailments. Inside were 50 to 70 inpatients who were frail and on ventilators and mostly relocated from nursing homes.

Scriven, who lives in Stony Brook, said he and others would walk to the nearest Walgreens, and while Manati didn’t have as much damage as other areas, many were still without power and he didn’t witness any utility crews working on restoring it.

“Yet the people were so nice, so appreciative and really amazing,” Scriven said.

Many areas in Puerto Rico still have downed power lines after Hurricane Maria. Photo by Ralph Rodriguez

Emergency Medical Specialist Dr. Rolando Valenzuela, a St. James resident, was one of the team members who spent time in Fajardo and on the USNS Comfort. He said the hospital in Fajardo needed help with its emergency room, and the New York medical professionals assisted with ambulatory patients and mostly dealt with benign medical complaints. He said a number of people were in distress because they were unable to get treatment for diabetes or use medical equipment such as nebulizers and oxygen concentrators without electricity. Others were experiencing health problems as a result of a lack of water or medications.

Valenzuela said many hospitals on the island are low on supplies and are operating on generators. Any kind of extensive imaging or lab work wasn’t available on site; however, the staff had basic medications, antibiotics, IV fluids and EKG machines on hand.

“The medical infrastructure is ground down to a halt,” Valenzuela said.

Patients with more serious problems in Fajardo were transported to San Juan or to the USNS Comfort. The ship was staffed by Navy personnel and DMAT tents were set up outside for ambulatory patients. Valenzuela said medical professionals from around the country working in the tents saw 500 to 600 patients a day. Patients with serious conditions were transferred to the Comfort.

“I can’t say enough about how amazing the Navy personnel was,” Valenzuela said. “These guys had been on board for over a month before they were allowed off the ship. They were getting a few hours of sleep here and there but their main focus was on treating patients.”

Valenzuela visited Puerto Rico in the past and remembered how friendly the people were, and said despite the devastation on the island, the residents were in good spirits.

“The people were extremely enthusiastic to have us there,” he said. “They were so grateful for any kind of assistance. They just wanted to make sure that they weren’t being forgotten, and we did our best to provide them with the standard of care that would be acceptable on Long Island. I think we were successful.”

Lt. Katherine Biggs aboard Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship administering aide to Puerto Rico. Photo by Stephane Belcher

A Naval emergency medicine physician from Port Jefferson Station is trying to provide comfort while aboard a ship named for it in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in September as a historic Category 5 storm, devastating Puerto Rico with sustained gusts nearing 200 mph. When Lt. Katherine Biggs, a resident at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia currently receiving training in military-specific medicine, was offered the chance to travel to the storm-ravaged island, the 2006 Comsewogue High School graduate said it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

Lt. Katherine Biggs and other sailors aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort treat a patient from Centro Medico in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Stephane Belcher

Biggs is one of five from the residency program aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship Comfort, which reached Puerto Rico Oct. 3 and does not have a scheduled return date, working on the boat’s casualty receiving area administering medical aide to those affected. Catastrophic flooding, damaged infrastructure and a lack of supplies, drinking water and electricity have created a dangerous situation for most Puerto Ricans trying to restore their regular routine.

“We’ll be here as long as directed and as long as needed,” Biggs said in a phone interview from Puerto Rico. “I’ll stay here as long as they’ll let me.”

She called the trip thus far a great learning experience, and said it’s been a change of pace helping people with severe respiratory and heart issues, for example, because she’s used to providing medical attention to those with traumatic, combat-related injuries. Biggs has treated some with broken bones, but said many of the patients she has been tasked with treating are people with chronic issues that are flaring up because they’ve been unable to take their prescribed medicines for various reasons.

The lieutenant said she knew when she was in ninth or tenth grade at Comsewogue that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine as a way to help people in need. After four years at Binghampton University as an undergraduate, she moved on to medical school at New York Institute of Technology in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, graduating in 2015. Biggs said she was able to afford the schooling thanks to the Health Professions Scholarship Program, a financial assistance offering from the U.S. military, which she heard about from a neighbor. She is in the third year of her residency in Portsmouth, and it is a rarity for residents to be asked to go on a trip like the one she’s on now, according to residency program director Commander John Devlin.

“This opportunity may be tough in the sense of the people struggling, but it is allowing my daughter to do what she was meant to do — help people in need.”

— Laurie Biggs

“I say it’s win-win,” Devlin said in a statement. “The people of Puerto Rico are getting more emergency medicine physician manpower than they would have had, had we gone with the original plan. And from the resident standpoint and the Navy’s standpoint, we are getting five junior physicians that, for their entire career, will have this experience base to carry forward to apply to missions in the future.”

With the help of the “Sea Knights” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron, Biggs and the other residents have been able to personally assist in medical evacuation missions around the island to return people to the ship for treatment via helicopter.

“When I heard about Katie’s plans to head to Puerto Rico I was incredibly proud,” Biggs’ mother Laurie said in an email. “I remember reminding her that this is why she joined the Navy and wanted to become a doctor. This opportunity may be tough in the sense of the people struggling, but it is allowing my daughter to do what she was meant to do — help people in need.”

Biggs’ mother added she knew from an early age her daughter, who is the oldest of four, was a caring and helpful person, ever aware of helping the less fortunate.

“To us she will always just be Katie, the daughter and older sister that is always there when you need her,” she said.

Biggs said her biggest takeaway from the mission thus far has been the dedication of responders on the ground to do whatever it takes to help both individuals and the island as a whole return to normalcy. To contribute to the relief effort, visit the American Red Cross website at www.redcross.org/donate.

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Cans with positive messages in Spanish spotted by Linda Obernauer when dropping off donations at Teatro Yerbabruja. Photo from Linda Obernauer

By Rita J. Egan

Members of a Setauket church are doing their part to help strangers more than 1,500 miles away.

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico Sept. 20 and left the majority of the more than 3.4 million residents without electricity and no easy access to food and supplies, Linda Obernauer, a church elder of Setauket Presbyterian Church, said she knew something had to be done.

Obernauer, chair of the church’s Peace and Justice Committee, began working with the Central Islip-based Teatro Yerbabruja to collect donations for the victims. The theater company is a grassroots organization that strives to inspire social changes through community, art and education.

The church elder said at first friends brought donations to her home before she set up a drop-off location at Setauket Presbyterian Church. The church is collecting ready-to-eat foods, instant coffee, baby wipes, adhesive bandages and powdered milk. Obernauer said the organization has plenty of diapers and bottled water.

Donations will be sent to Puerto Rico where many streets such as this one in San Juan were flooded after Hurricane Maria. Photo from Rafael Candelaria

She said the church is deeply involved in community outreach, especially in Port Jefferson Station with their furniture bank Open Door Exchange, and recently she has met many people whose families have been affected by the hurricane and the recent earthquake in Mexico. Obernauer said she feels collections such as this one are what the congregation’s faith calls them to do.

“This is all interconnected on how we honor our neighbors when they are in need,” she said.

Obernauer said she has already transported a pickup truck filled with donations to the Central Islip organization and plans on driving another truckload this week. She said she isn’t surprised by the congregation’s generosity, as they are always quick to donate.

“I think it’s a really good community effort,” she said. “When people reach out, they are getting heard and people are helping.”

Teatro Yerbabruja’s director Margarita Espada said the nonprofit will send donations via private freight. She said the theater is currently collaborating with Suffolk County Community College and working with a few organizations in Puerto Rico that are trying to get supplies to small towns, which have been difficult to reach due to debris in the roads. Another obstacle during the first week was the Jones Act, which President Donald Trump (R) temporarily lifted Sept. 28. The act requires all goods shipped between U.S. ports to be shipped by U.S. vessels and for them to be primarily operated by Americans.

Espada said she has worked on outreach projects with Obernauer in the past, and she’s grateful for her and the church members’ help.

“I think it’s great because they are showing support for Puerto Rico,” she said.

Obernauer said items can be dropped off at the church office until Oct. 10 between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Setauket Presbyterian Church is located at 5 Caroline Ave., Setauket.