Indians in Puerto Rico “Safe and Sound”
Residents say they are “living day to day” as food and drinking water supplies run out on an island whose entire electric grid was knocked out.
All Indians in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were pounded recently by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, are “safe and sound,” according to an Indian consular officer in Atlanta.
The Consulate General of India in Atlanta has been in touch with Indian organizations in both Caribbean islands, who have reported that no Indians were injured during the storms, although many homes were flooded and several of them are still coping with the after-effects, D. V. Singh, consul for community affairs, told Little India.
Puerto Rico, population 3.5 million, was particularly devastated on Sept 20 by Hurricane Maria, which knocked out virtually the entire electric grid and nearly half the island is still without clean drinking water. Residents are lining up for upwards of eight hours to get fuel. The U.S. Virgin Islands, which has a population of nearly 100,000, was likewise flattened, with much of its infrastructure knocked out.
Dilip Shah, a retired architect in Hato Rey in central San Juan, Puerto Rico, his family and a friend took shelter in the lobby of their bedroom on the 12th floor when the hurricane hit their apartment complex. The storm blew out the hurricane shutters, smashed windows and glass and the whole building seemed to be swaying like during an earthquake, he said. The section of their apartment on the 11th floor was flooded with more than a foot of water for several hours. Shah said that his friend, Ram Sarup Lamba, returned two days later to his home in Cayey, which is in the mountains, to find it devastated by the storm, with the roof ripped off. Another friend, Vijay Tavkar, who lives on a beach on the Northeast coast of the island, which was evacuated during the storm, had to stay in a shelter for three days.
Kaumudi Joshipura, director of the Center for Clinical Research and Health Promotion at the University of Puerto Rico, whose home is on the coast in Condado, in central San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, took shelter at a friend’s home on the night of the storm. Her apartment on the 12th floor was flooded and many windows and the air conditioner ripped out.
Even so, Joshipura says: “I count myself among the very lucky ones, in spite of having almost every room in our apartment affected. We have running water, not full time, because they need to control the generator use. The generator works for certain hours in the early morning and evenings. They shut it down at 6 am and start in the evening. We can power our phones and we have running water during that time.”
Living Day to Day
Shah said nine days after the hurricane, 90 percent of the island still remains without power and buildings with generators are rationing its use because of an acute shortage of fuel. People stand 8 to 10 hours in line to buy gasoline and there are long queues at the supermarkets, which have very limited supply of food. Most communications, including cell phones, are shut off, he said, “We are living day to day.”
Kiran Dasari, who spent seven years as a PhD student at the University of Puerto Rico and moved recently to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign as a post doc, remains in touch with several Indian friends in Puerto Rico, most of whom still lack power and safe drinking water. He said 67 families, who are on his Whatsapp group, cite the most common challenges as lack of electricity, damaged roads and downed electricity poles.
Many are surviving on stored food supplies and bottled water. He is unable to reach many other friends, because cell service (and electricity to charge phones) is crippled on most of the island.
Joshipura said that resident of vulnerable areas rode out the storms by turning to friends or shelters: “We have a very good community. Many people have reached out to help each other. Several people had offered us to stay at their homes, both Indians and Puerto Ricans and other nationalities.”
After the storm, Ratnakar Palai, president of the Indian Association of Puerto Rico, and another association member Ashwin Modi, helped clear debris and repair windows at her home. With communication systems shut off and electricity and fuel in short supply, it is impractical for community organizations to offer much help, Joshipura said, “But people are checking in on their neighbors, friends, community members.”
A week after Hurricane Maria struck, the situation is “very, very worrisome,” she says. “People are running out of supplies. Most people may not have water beyond a week. There are concerns about food, water, even medication for those who need them.”
Consul Singh said: “We have set up a 24/7 helpline. We are in regular touch with the community associations and leadership in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands and we are ready to provide all possible help to all Indian citizens and even PIOs (Persons of Indian Origin).” As of Thursday, the Consulate had not received any requests for assistance.
Six Months to Restore Power
Shah said official estimates are that it will take five to six months to restore electricity on the island, which is impeding distribution of fuel, food and services. “How will people survive for six months, I don’t know?” he said.
Fernando Taveras, manager at Bangkok & Bombay, a Thai Indian restaurant in Santurce, San Juan, said the restaurant was forced to shut down after the hurricane. It reopened recently, for limited hours, from 2 pm to 8 pm, using a generator as electricity has not been restored. The restaurant, a popular destination for Indian tourists to the island, most of whom come on cruises, receives few customers, because most of the island is still devastated, he said.
Federal Response Criticized
The Trump administration has been criticized for its tepid response to the disaster in Puerto Rico. Indian American Congressman Ami Bera said: “As a doctor, I am gravely concerned about the growing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. There are 3.4 million American citizens in dire need of drinking water, food, medical supplies, and electric power. We have to act now and use every option available to support response efforts.”
Shah said, “I don’t see why in the U.S. people should be experiencing this, people are starving for food. Why is the federal government not providing food and fuel and electricity for the people?”
Adds Joshipura: “I was very, very worried about an Indian friend who lives in a remote area. We texted each other before the hurricane. She texted there was a foot of water in her apartment at 3 o’clock on Wednesday, the day of the hurricane. Another friend communicated with her at 4 o’clock and since then we had no communication with her and she had two little kids, three-year-old twins. I was very worried, but just yesterday I heard from her that they are OK.”
But, she says: “I have not been able to connect with even half the people I would like to. We don’t know. There may be people who may be in a very, very bad situation and there is no way to communicate.”
Communication Biggest Challenge
Joshipura left Puerto Rico a few days after the hurricane hit on a previously booked flight. She says one of the greatest challenge presently facing people looking to get out of the island is information: “I am trying to get my husband out. It does not matter which airline or which part of the U.S., because he can go from there anywhere. But you have to check so many airlines and so many destinations.”
The most important help needed presently, she said, is facilitating “information sharing, help find others who cannot be traced … reach people, connect, share information about a Costco or Walgreen being open.”
Shah said: “You on the mainland get better news on TV, CNN, than we do here. You know more about what is going on than we do.”
Joshipura said a central WhatsApp or text information sharing group, since data and Internet is spotty in Puerto Rico, would be the best immediate resource. “Financial help is not going to solve immediate problems. It is giving the right information, it is making the logistics easier,” she said.
There are 3,523 Indians and an additional 2,000 mixed-race Indians in Puerto Rico, the largest Asian group on the island, according to the 2010 Census. The highest proportion are employed in the education, construction, hospitality and manufacturing sectors.
Dasari says, however, that he doubts there are more than 1,000 Indians in Puerto Rico as major events, such as Diwali and Holi, organized by the Indian Association of Puerto Rico, typically attract 200 to 250 Indians. Many Indians moved out of Puerto Rico after the financial crisis hit about a year ago. In May, the government filed for bankruptcy and the island has lost nearly 10 percent of its population during the past decade. Dasari estimates that the Indian student population at the University of Puerto Rico has fallen to a quarter in recent years. Almost half the Indians in Puerto Rico, including a majority of mixed race ones, migrated from neighboring Caribbean islands.
The article has been updated to include comments from the Consulate General of India in Atlanta.