It’s almost become the punchline to a very bad joke. On January 18th, CBS News correspondent David Begnaud discovered yet another locked warehouse full of food and supplies in Puerto Rico. This time in Ponce. The first few instances (in the San Juan metro area) were unearthed in August 2018, 11 months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. About the discoveries in August 2018, the National Guard blamed the undistributed contents of the warehouses on the fact that the food was expired. At the time of shipments to the island in September and October 2017, the food in question was well within the expiration dates. To make matters worse, the explanation doesn’t address the non-perishable items that were also in the warehouse.
Were it not for the two back-to-back earthquakes in Puerto Rico on January 6th and 7th (and the 1500 tremors and aftershocks—most of them between Ponce and Guanica (in the southern part of the island), it’s quite likely Begnaud (and subsequently the rest of us) wouldn’t have known for years about the Ponce warehouse full of food and supplies. It was made public after the 5.8 and 6.4 quakes forced people out of their homes and into a refugee camps. Who even knows if there’s another warehouse full of food and supplies on the island? The cynic in me says it’s highly probable.
It’s difficult to reconcile these discoveries when median incomes on the island are under $21,000 annually, and many people are barely able to make ends meet under normal circumstances. Factor in losing their home and every possession in it, it’s unconscionable.
A Different Kind of Warehouse Full of Food and Supplies
Like most people who read the articles, saw the images and learned that current Puerto Rico governor Wanda Vásquez Garced took no responsibility but instead fired Carlos Acevedo, the island’s director of the Office of Emergency Management, I had concerns about what would happen to any donations made to help the estimated 5000 people living in refugee camps between Ponce and Guanica. We all have huge hearts but also have long memories and are short on patience when it comes to chaos, backdoor deals, corruption and the subsequent finger pointing that ensues after natural disasters.
Initially I did nothing but watch, wait and observe. I kept hoping some reputable organization would emerge.
I’m glad I didn’t jump to donate until I felt truly confident my donations would benefit the people who need them and not wind up in someone’s pocket. One is a clear frontrunner for me. A good friend of mine, Joel Berrocal is the president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. Joel and the Chamber raised money to assist people following Maria. I didn’t know him well at the time, but mutual friends told me he worked tirelessly to raise money, send supplies and actually ensure they benefitted people who needed them and not sit in a warehouse.
As soon as he learned about the earthquakes and confirmed his family back home were alive and safe, he sprang into action again to help people—people he doesn’t know and will never meet—because as he told me, “they’re all my people.”
Feeling confident Joel was the real deal, I donated to the Chamber. He shot me back an email half an hour later to tell me exactly where my donation would go. His specificity was in direct contrast to organizations like the Red Cross who are anything but specific, all the while they’re admitting to lining executives’ pockets with millions of dollars meant to help people following natural disasters.
I then took it upon myself to raise some money, buy food and supplies and bring them to a refugee camp. On Saturday, February 1, my dear friend Joan accompanied me to Sábana Grande (which is west of Ponce and east of Guanica) to deliver food and supplies Joan bought the day before with money we’d raised on behalf of the Chamber. The location was one Joel’s aunt (who lives on the island) discovered on her own. Once she was satisfied they made everything available to those who need it, she suggested people send their food and supplies to that location.
It was there we saw a different kind of warehouse full of food and supplies. Unlike the ones Begnaud exposed in Facebook live videos, this one is open to anyone in the refugee camp. They don’t have to ask for permission to take anything: food, clothes, diapers, toiletries, water, cleaning supplies, pet food, medical supplies, you name it. There were even strollers and a wheelchair. It’s free to them, as no money changes hands.
Volunteers receive the food and supplies and bring them into the warehouse. The warehouse is huge, I’d say at least 200 x 200 (it’s the town’s coliseum) and filled with lots of things someone who’s lost their home would need. As you can see from photos, it’s very well organized. They were happy for me to take photos, because as one of the volunteers told me, “we have nothing to hide and this is for them, not us.”
Both Joan and I are really glad we went and saw it for ourselves. We’ve already decided to raise more money to buy more things we know the refugees need, and drive down there again.
In the meantime, if you donate money directly to the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, as the owner of Purple Coquí Tours, I will do the following:
Please mention Purple Coquí Tours when you make your donation.
Having seen things with my own eyes, I can confirm that 100% of every dollar donated to the chamber benefits those who need it. The chamber doesn’t keep even a penny of it.