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Dickinson resident takes action for devastated hometown in Puerto Rico

This is one of the only spots to access water in Utuado, Heredia said. Submitted photo.1 / 4
A FEMA helicopter delivers some supplies to Utuado after Hurricane Maria. Submitted photo.2 / 4
Rene Heredia's mother, Ines, and his friend's daughter in Utuado. Submitted photo.3 / 4
This is a central plaza in Utuado, Puerto Rico. Heredia said this plaza was once known for providing shade to city residents. Submitted photo.4 / 4

DICKINSON, N.D. — Rene Heredia, a scientist for Marathon Oil in Dickinson, felt helpless as he watched Hurricane Maria devastate his home island of Puerto Rico on Friday, Sept. 22. In the days after the hurricane, Heredia did all he could to contact family members and learn about what the hurricane did to his home community of Utuado, a city of about 30,000 people in center of the island.

"At the beginning I felt so helpless. Me and many friends in the continental U.S. were looking from far away with no communication at all. We were completely devastated," Heredia said.

Getting in touch with relatives and friends proved extremely difficult because the hurricane nearly wiped out the country's electrical grid. Heredia eventually reached a friend in Puerto Rico's capital of San Juan who traveled to Utuado and assured him that Heredia's mother and other contacts in his hometown were okay.

His friend said that though the hurricane mostly damaged structures, hurricane-induced mudslides made Utuado difficult to reach by road.

Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) helicopters delivered limited supplies in the days after the hurricane, but the town quickly ran out of basic necessities like water, Heredia's friend said.

Late last week, Heredia heard that the U.S. Postal Service was going to soon start delivering mail to places like Utuado, so he had an idea to send water filters to his hometown. As a professional in the field of environmental science and with childhood experiences in Boy Scouts, Heredia knew the water filters would be useful.

"People running out of water was my main concern," Heredia said. "Sending a case of water would be really hard and expensive. I found camping water-filters on Amazon and they were really inexpensive."

Heredia took the initiative to start a GoFundMe online campaign to raise money to buy water filters and send them to Utuado so people would have access to safe drinking water.

At first Heredia was hesitant about sharing his fundraising effort with co-workers, but then one of them asked if there was anything they could do to help Puerto Rico.

"I sent him the link and my co-worker then sent the link through our internal email," Heredia said. "In the beginning, my goal was $1,500. Today, I have (raised) more than $4,000."

The funding allowed Heredia to purchase dozens of filters and send them to Utuado. On Monday, Oct. 2, 11 days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Heredia's mother, Ines, was finally able to get access to a phone and talk to Heredia.

"When I told my mom that I was sending some filters, she was really thankful because one of her neighbors was already starting to have diarrhea symptoms (from the water)," he said.

Heredia wants to keep his efforts to help Puerto Rico small and focused on the community he is from, but with the extra money he is open to sending filters to surrounding towns and villages.

"A neighbor of my grandparents just put a desperate message on Facebook saying we haven't seen anybody from FEMA, nobody from local government," he said. "I asked her, 'Hey do you have an address? I'm sending you filters.' "

Puerto Rico today

FEMA was dispatched to Puerto Rico to help with disaster relief in the days following Hurricane Maria, but many criticized the response as inadequate.

Most famously, the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, went on national television a few days after the hurricane and "begged" for more federal relief.

"We are dying here," she said. "I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles ... you are killing us with the inefficiency and bureaucracy."

Responding on Twitter, President Trump praised the work of federal workers on the island and called Cruz's leadership "poor."

Trump visited with officials in Puerto Rico on Tuesday and praised FEMA's response to the many hurricanes of the last few weeks, and said that Puerto Rico was lucky to lose only 16 lives in the hurricane in comparison to a "real catastrophe like (hurricane) Katrina." Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo Rosello reported after the visit that the death toll has climbed to 34, and estimated that the island has suffered $90 billion in damages.

Many in Puerto Rico are asking for increased federal aid to what they see as a crisis that is just beginning.

As of Saturday, Sept. 30, the Department of Defense reported that nearly half of the island did not have access to clean drinking water, over 95 percent of the people lacked electricity and many hospitals lacked the ability to provide basic care. Puerto Rican officials estimate that it could take four to six months to fully restore the island's electric grid, and in the meantime, some residents may need to cope without clean water and sewage, refrigeration, access to rural hospitals and other systems that depend on the electric grid.

Heredia said he encourages people in North Dakota and elsewhere to contact their local representatives and push for the federal government and Congress to take more action on Puerto Rico.

"Let's send a message that we all care," he said. "Everybody is watching and we want Puerto Rico to get over this."

Heredia's GoFundMe campaign for water filter donations is at www.gofundme.com/c82b5-water-filters-for-puerto-rico.

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