Morovis, Puerto Rico Aid Relief Trip as Told by a Moroveña

by Adriana Rivera Sánchez

 

September 20th 2017 will be a date that for Puerto Ricans will live in infamy. So will the months after. Our island was enveloped by a Category 4 hurricane, after being clipped a week prior with by a Category 5. Hurricane Maria will forever be ingrained in our memories.

Before the hurricane hit, I watched in terror as the storm paths were traced right over my hometown. It would split our island right down the middle, crossing mercilessly from north to south and east to west. September 19th, I called my family and bid them goodbye, knowing that it would be the last time I would speak to them in a little while. Little did I know that it would take 3 weeks before I heard any news from my loved ones.

On September 21stt Puerto Ricans woke to a new reality. Us, the diaspora, shaken with the first images coming out of our island, were teary-eyed, anxiety-filled and down-right scared shitless to learn the fate of our friends and families. In the midst of being nervous, scared, not being able to work, sleep, or eat, we looked at our community members and found solace. A few lucky ones had heard from home, most of us hadn’t; but we had each other.

What’s next? We looked at each other, rolled up and sleeves and got to work. Drop off centers and fundraisers sprung up all around the country. As the aid started rolling in, I noticed that the San Juan metro area was the epicenter of everything, as usual. I feared that my small mountain town would be forgotten. Then news started coming out about my town. Morovis is never in the news, so I knew it was either really good or really bad. Of course, having a Category 4 hurricane’s eye come right down on a town, it would not be anything good. I braced myself.

We had lost two bridges, cutting off a whole part of our town. Reports said Morovis was a center of utter and undeniable devastation, even more than other places. It’s true that the mountain towns were hit the hardest and it’s where the aid took the longest, if it ever arrived. I decided I had to do something. Everyone was saying “Puerto Rico se levanta”, Puerto Rico will rise, but I decided that Morovis would also have to rise, thus Morovis se levanta was born.

I created a You Caring page, and along with some volunteers from a Morovis diaspora Facebook page we started promoting it on the page itself. Those Facebook pages were the only source of information for the diaspora for a very long time. There was an all-Puerto Rico page and smaller community pages for each town. We also tuned into the Zello app, where you could hear updates and people looking for information on loved ones. It all reminded me of the pictures people posted of the missing persons after 9/11, just online. Seeing pictures of the elderly, children and whole families with the words “MISSING” sent chills down my spine. People would mention their loved ones’ names, where they lived, their jobs, anything to help them find them.

We began getting some donations through the Facebook page, but I knew that at that rate we would never raise enough to make a difference. I began to promote elsewhere, and soon I was the only one running this effort. I could’ve given up, but I was dedicated. I had help from some community and grass-roots groups that really helped. A few of these groups even held fundraising events for me. During a BBQ event held by the People’s Progressive Caucus and the Democratic Socialists of America in Miami we raised almost $2,000. My friend Geoff, AKA Miami Gator on Twitter, raised $500 with one single tweet! By the time January rolled around I had $5,000. With that money I got on a plane and headed to my island.

My plan was to impact ten families with $500 gift cards to furniture, hardware or appliance stores. I didn’t even know where to start. On Monday, January 22nd, I picked up a friend and started to drive around. We were looking for families who had lost everything. We found them quickly. There were too many and I wished I could’ve helped them all.

We began in Torrecillas, where I had seen a lot of devastation the day prior. We drove past an orange structure and saw the remnants of a kitchen in the front. The rest of it was a box covered in a blue tarp. We parked across the street and wandered onto their property yelling good morning. We soon found an older couple inside. We explained our purpose and they let us in. What our eyes saw was ghastly. I felt like I was in a village in Tanzania or Sri Lanka, or any of the places your mother would mention when she said, “there are kids who don’t have food, so you better eat yours.”

When we asked about any aid they were receiving they shocked us with their response. FEMA gave them $1,500. What can you do with that when you lost everything? When you don’t have a roof and are sleeping on a cold floor? They denied the $500 gift card we offered because they had nowhere to put any furniture or appliances. I went the next day and got them groceries, a lot of them.

We continued driving and ended up lost. That’s when we stumbled upon a wreckage in Fránquez. There was an older man working and we asked him about the house. It was his daughter’s. She lived there with her husband, who was now unemployed due to the hurricane. She was at work, but we met her parents and they decided that she would love a new stove. They were working on rebuilding the home with donations from two churches, so the stove would go in the new house. FEMA denied all aid because of a clerical mistake on FEMA’s part. The young lady is currently appealing.

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The next day I was at it again. I heard a cousin of mine had lost his roof and everything inside his home. I didn’t think it would be such a horrible case, but when I got inside his house my jaw dropped. He lost absolutely everything when the roof blew away. Even the clothes on his, his wife’s and his son’s back are all donated. They are currently staying inside the blue-tarped wreckage, all living in one room. He was approved for $8,000 and has been scouring the island looking for someone who would install a new concrete roof for less than $10,000. They were happy to receive the small aid from us.

In my cousin’s neighborhood, El Jobo, I found two more recipients. One was a single mother of two, who got denied all FEMA aid, and a family man who got approved for $12,000. She lost her roof and everything inside, but the concrete structure is still standing. He lost absolutely everything. There was only one wall left standing of what used to be his home. She will buy her kids’ beds and he will buy kitchen appliances. They were both happy and thankful for the aid.

One of my husband’s childhood friends’ parents had also lost everything. He asked me to go visit them and decide if they deserved the aid. After seeing their roofless home and black mold-filled rooms, where they and their special-needs son live, I knew they did. She couldn’t believe I was there to help them and gave me a huge hug. They were approved for $5,000 in FEMA funds. I was quickly getting the impression that these amounts were very small and no one could really rebuild a whole house with them.

Later that week, my brother-in-law told me he had heard of a family who was living in a horse stall. I had to see for myself. The family of four live in Patrón and are currently staying inside a makeshift basement which was used to house animal feed and equipment. They have two small girls and are living in inhumane conditions. This one also had me in tears. The young wife walked me around the space and explained their living conditions. The beds were soaked through because of the leaky ceiling. The kitchen and bathroom spaces were both in shambles. Another third-world situation, but this one with young parents and two elementary grade children. The husband came home and quickly recognized me. Turns out we went to high school together.

His parents had also lost their home and I proceeded to see what was left of the older man’s house. This was it: one wall, a sink and a door frame. He got approved for $12,000, his son’s family got denied all aid. When I gave them their gift cards the young mother told me I had really surprised her because no one has helped them yet. Her father-in-law hugged me, noticeably shaken, and told me “this is too much.” I held back my tears.

The next morning, I woke up still thinking about the family. I did a Facebook Live asking for more donations, since, by that point, I had exhausted them by helping 10 families. I was sent almost $700. With this money I bought one more gift card and used the rest to buy the family groceries.

The last gift card, I took to a house I kept driving by all week. The structure was still standing but the metal roof was all bent and badly covered with a blue tarp. The back half of the home was open to the elements. I walked up and explained my purpose. The elderly couple explained that FEMA came by, but didn’t put up the tarp saying it was too dangerous. A church group did it later on, as best they could. They were approved for $6,000 and are currently living in the remains of the home. They use the one bathroom they have, which is in the half of the house that didn’t get a blue tarp. The 70 some year-old man joked that he showers twice; once with the rain and once with the shower water.

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I also gave aid to my grandmother and to my uncle who lost everything as well. My uncle is battling PTSD from riding out the storm inside my grandmother’s house which blew away, coupled with the fact that he got denied all FEMA aid. The weekend before I left, I went with my grandmother and we picked out a dresser and night table for her for $460. She’s planning on rebuilding.

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When I thought I was done, I heard of one more special situation; a family living in an abandoned school. I went to a cousin’s house, gathered some food donations and we went to see if indeed they were there. They were. Having taken over an abandoned first-grade classroom for the past four months, this family was also very happy to see us. We visited with them and heard their story, offering a few words of comfort.

After ten days of no power and running around my whole town, it was time to head back to Miami. I still wished I could’ve done more and my survivor’s guilt is now worse. I saw an island I barely recognized, with so many problems and no quick solutions in sight.

Many Puerto Rican families were denied funds, such as my uncle, because they lacked property deeds. See, in Puerto Rico, many people build their homes on ancestral land, on top of pre-existing structures, and some are even squatters. My uncle’s modest home was right next to my grandmother’s, on her land. Since it’s her land, he didn’t ask anyone whether he could build his house, except her. My grandfather had his house on top of his business. The house flew away, but when FEMA inspectors saw his case, he was too denied all funds because they said it was impossible that someone would build a house on top of a business and they recorded the home as being an office.

Like that, there are thousands of other cases. One of the families that we saw in El Jobo, that was denied all funds, was told that since the home was in her mother’s name, and her mother is deceased, they can’t give her any help. There are so many technicalities and measures that just don’t make sense for a culture that just does things differently. Life in Puerto Rico is different than in the U.S., we do things differently; and I’m not judging who is right or wrong. Aid should be given on a case by case basis, taking into consideration how and where the family lived. If a family lived in a home, that they themselves built with their own effort and sweat, on their family’s land, and now they don’t have a home to go back to, why would you deny them help? Then I also remember that people that $500 in Miami for spoiled food after one day without power, or $2,000 for damages that were never even inspected and I just don’t understand the disparity.

I am very upset and disappointed at how all of this has played out. The local government in P.R. hasn’t done enough. The federal government hasn’t done enough. It has been grassroots efforts, the ones that have really touched the hearts and left a lasting impression on the actual citizens.

Click here to donate to Morovis Se Levanta. 

PPC Votes to Endorse Mayor Stoddard

For Immediate Release

From: The People's Progressive Caucus of Miami-Dade
Media contact: William Byatt - (305) 900-8648 - william.byatt@miamiprogressives.org

PPC Unanimously Endorses Mayor Phil Stoddard for Re-Election

In a unanimous vote, the PPC endorsed Mayor Phil Stoddard for re-election on Saturday, February 3rd. This endorsement occurs on the strength of Mayor Stoddard's commitment to environmental programs, community policing, and government transparency.

The People's Progressive Caucus of Miami-Dade is the Miami-Dade chapter of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida.

PPC Votes to Support TWU Local 291 in Demands Campaign

For Immediate Release

From: The People's Progressive Caucus of Miami-Dade
Media contact: William Byatt - (305) 900-8648 - william.byatt@miamiprogressives.org

PPC Votes to Support TWU Local 291 In Demands Campaign

On Saturday, February 3, the People's Progressive Caucus of Miami-Dade, a chapter of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, voted unanimously to support Transport Workers Union Local 291 in their demand campaign directed at Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Local 291's five demands are to stop blaming the workers; resume contract negotiations; withdraw the request for a $170,000 raise; stop the privatization of bus services; and invest in mass transit operations.

In a statement, the PPC said the following: "It is absurd on its face that Mayor Gimenez would ask for a $170,000 raise while our public transportation infrastructure rots. It's outright disgraceful that he would then try to blame our County employees for late trains and buses, when the County's own analysis blames 95% of all delays on equipment issues. It is time we quit allowing the Mayor to subsidize his ego and start investing in our transportation and transportation staff."

This vote triggers the PPC sending the issue to the Miami-Dade Democratic Party's Issues Committee.

PPC Letter Triggers Investigation into NextSource Biotechnology

 

For Immediate Release

From: The Board of the People's Progressive Caucus of Miami-Dade
Media contact: William Byatt - (305) 900-8648 - william.byatt@miamiprogressives.org

PPC Letter Triggers State Attorney Gouging Investigation Into NextSource Biotechnology

The office of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has assigned an investigator to NextSource Biotechnology to determine if their 1400% price increases for cancer drug Gleostine constitutes gouging under Florida Statutes. Several of NextSource's predatory price hikes occurred during periods that may have exploited emergency conditions created by last year's Hurricane Irma.

This investigation follows an open letter published by the Board of the PPC on January 1, 2018 calling on local elected officials and candidates to fight for policy that will curtail these toxic business practices. In response to that letter, City of Miami Commissioner requested that the State Attorney's office open an investigation. On Saturday, January 29, at a fundraiser event for the Miami-Dade Young Democrats, Commissioner Russell confirmed that the State Attorney has responded to his request by opening an investigation.

Elected Officials Join PPC In Opposing Predatory Pharmaceutical Companies

 

Several South Florida area elected officials have joined the People's Progressive Caucus of Miami-Dade in opposing predatory pharmaceutical price gouging made possible by existing policy gaps.

On Monday, January 1 the PPC called on elected officials as well as the candidates for Florida's 26th and 27th Congressional Districts to oppose miami-based pharmaceutical company NextSource Biotechnology's 1400% price increase on life-saving brain cancer drug Gleostine.

As of Monday, January 8, our call for policy reform and investigative action has been joined by State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, State Senator Annette Taddeo, State Representative David Richardson, Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell, and candidate for Florida Congressional District 27 Michael A. Hepburn. (full quotes below).

We thank these elected officials and candidates for standing up against these extortionate business practices and for seeking long-term policy solutions.

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[QUOTES]

State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez:
"Price gouging in healthcare is reprehensible and unacceptable. Part of my desire to serve in Congress is about continuing our work on behalf of those without access to affordable quality healthcare and on behalf of consumers. I have seen and heard for my constituents time and time again that they are having to skip refills or skip doses in order to afford their prescription. 

At the federal level we absolutely need to tackle costs in healthcare, especially prescription drug prices, and to curb the worst abuses of the pharmaceutical industry. In the Florida Legislature I am speaking to state agencies and my colleagues about requiring companies that market or manufacture drugs to disclose and justify price increases, following the lead of states that have taken action like California, Louisiana, Nevada, Maryland and North Carolina (and those who have considered such steps like Michigan and Massachusetts)."

State Senator Annette Taddeo:
"It is terrible dealing with the trauma of cancer only to find out a private company bought your medicine and jacked up the prices on you by 2400%. But now we find out that the guy who did it all is accused of sexual harassment and it is just nauseating.

This is why we need #MedicaidForAll. This is why we need price control on life saving drugs. I'm disappointed in this Miami native."

State Representative David Richardson:
"I stand in support with the People’s Progressive Caucus of Miami-Dade and others to oppose predatory pharmaceutical pricing as demonstrated by Next Source Biotechnology and further call on the State Attorney to investigate whether Next Source has engaged in price gouging and anti-competitive practices.

As a candidate for Congress, I am the first and only Democrat in this race to call for a single-payer health care system (Medicare-for-All), as supported by Senator Sanders and other progressive Democrats. I fully believe that health care is not a privilege, but a right for ALL Americans. A Medicare-for-All insurance program will prevent out-of-control drug prices, as well as exploitative pricing practices demonstrated by Next Source and other predatory pharmaceutical companies."

Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell (Twitter):
"Based on letter from @MDCProgressives and reports by @CBSNews & @MiamiNewTimes I have requested AG @PamBondi & State Atty @KathyFndzRundle to look into potential price gouging of vital cancer drug Lomustine"

(source: https://twitter.com/kenrussellmiami/status/948349459456458752)

Candidate for Congress Michael A. Hepburn:
"The pharmaceutical industry, or 'Big Pharma,' gouges the American people because the government forbids Medicare from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. Under our plan, this regulation will be eliminated and Medicare will be allowed to negotiate the best possible prices for the American people."

The PPC Stages Successful Die-In at Home of NextSource CEO Robert DiCrisci

On Saturday, January 6, members of the People's Progressive Caucus of Miami-Dade and allies successfully staged a die-in at the luxury condo of NextSource Biotechnology CEO Robert DiCrisci. NextSource has gouged the price of Gleostine, a life-saving cancer drug, 1400% since 2013, blatantly extorting the sick and dying. More than a dozen local activists gathered at Brickell Park, marched down Brickell Avenue, and arrived at DiCrisci's condo. Once arrived at the condo, the activists called DiCrisci by name and demanded that he reduce the price of Gleostine to 2013 levels. They then collapsed on the ground in symbolic death for two minutes, to show DiCrisci the effect that his actions have had on the people.

The activists were joined by Michael A. Hepburn, a Democrat running for Congressional District 27 to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen when she retires at the end of this year.

Hepburn said, "Now is the time to stand up against predators like Robert and others just like him that believe in putting profits first. I'm standing up to become your Congressman because I believe in putting people over profits."

Call For Comment

Members of the People’s Progressive Caucus of Miami-Dade,

We believe in all of us, and we believe in the power of the people to change the world. So when the status quo, which allows misery profiteers to make millions off of the sick and dying, planted a price-gouging, predatory pharmaceutical company in our backyard, we couldn’t let that lie.

NextSource Pharmaceuticals and their CEO, Robert DiCrisci, have increased the price of a life-saving drug from about $50 to $768 since 2013. We have been vocal in our opposition. We have called on local elected officials to take a stand against this behavior and to propose constructive policy solutions. We have asked for an investigation into whether this legally constitutes prohibited gouging or anti-competitive practices. State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, State Senator Annette Taddeo, State Representative David Richardson, Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell, and Congressional District 27 candidate Michael Hepburn have all joined our condemnation of this practice, each issuing statements on social media or directly. Commissioner Russell joined our call for an investigation, and the remaining legislators have all called for policy solutions, ranging from Medicaid expansion to Federal pharmaceutical price negotiations to Medicare-For-All.

To continue our fight, we have called for a die-in tomorrow afternoon in front of NextSource CEO Robert DiCrisci’s luxury condo. Exploiting the sick and dying may just be business for him, but it’s personal for us. So we’re making sure he sees us. Apparently, he has seen us. This afternoon we received the following letter from DiCrisci’s attorney:

Hello, I am counsel to Robert DiCrisci. Apparently, Robert has become of interest to your organization as you have contacted Miami New Times to complain about him and now you are scheduling a Die-In at his residence. I am reaching out to speak to you and to set up a time for your officers to speak to Robert. Respectfully, we believe you have inaccurate information about the cancer drug that his company sells as well as the more important questions of who he is and what motivates him. Your website does not identify a person I can talk to. So, I am writing. And my cell is [redacted]. If you wish to be fair-minded about dealing with Robert instead of just calling him names in the press and asking people to die at his doorstep, than email or call me. If I do not hear form you, I will interpret your silence as having no desire to try to learn all the facts and to treat Robert fairly. And that will say a lot about your organization. I await your call.

The Board of the PPC has discussed this letter, and we would like to propose the following for your consideration: we will invite this attorney to a meeting tomorrow morning before the die-in to explain his position at an open-door meeting that you are all welcome to attend. While we do not generally believe in providing the morally bankrupt with a platform to speak, we know that we are in the right and we welcome the opportunity to demand that NextSource cease its corrupt practices in person. We will demand that NextSource return the price to pre-gouging levels. There will be no other terms, no other negotiation, no other discussion.

We invite you all to publicly discuss this. We would like to get a response to the attorney this afternoon, but we will wait for as much feedback from you as possible.

An Open Letter to Democratic Candidates for Congress in Miami-Dade

Since 2013, Miami-based pharmaceutical company NextSource Biotechnology has driven up the price of lomustine, a forty-year-old drug used in the treatment of brain cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma, by 1400%. Robert DiCrisci, NextSource’s CEO, has disingenuously claimed that this is related to drug development costs, but the reality is that the drug in question was developed in 1976 by Bristol-Meyers Squibb: NextSource bore zero development costs for this drug.