State Sen. Karen Peterson helps organize relief for Ponce, Puerto Rico


State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson returned home from a nine-day visit to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico with the goal of organizing aid for villages which have received no help in the more than two weeks since Hurricane Maria struck.

“I visited communities around Ponce that have seen nobody from FEMA, nobody from Red Cross. They have no cell phone service, no diesel, no generators, no food,” Peterson said Sunday afternoon. “A third of the island still hasn’t been touched” by recovery efforts.

As head of the Louisiana Democratic Party, Peterson said she went to Puerto Rico at the request of friends on the party’s national committees. Her experience with the recovery problems of Hurricane Katrina and the half dozen other storms that have hit Louisiana since 2005 gave Peterson a unique perspective in helping the island find its footing.

Restaurateur Bill Hammack recalled contacting Peterson Thursday night on another matter, but the senator could only talk about the conditions she was seeing in and around Ponce.

“It was during those conversations that I offered to load up my airplane and fly down,” Hammack said. But during these conversations I came to realize the need far exceeded my airplane’s capacity,” Hammack said Sunday. The operation grew from there.

Peterson returned to New Orleans on Friday with a list in hand, and then set about with Hammack to gather the materials for a return to the island.

“This is coming together very quickly,” he said.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, officials with hospitals, restaurants, GNO Inc., and other business groups, are gathering donated supplies that Peterson and a Louisiana delegation plan to fly Tuesday from New Orleans to Ponce, the island’s second largest city.

The center of Hurricane Maria directly hit the U.S. territory at near Category 5 strength, lashing the island with wind and rain for more than 30 hours. Infrastructure on the island, whose government services already had been deeply cut because of economic problems, collapsed throwing much of the 3.4 million residents into the dark. With about 164,000 residents, Ponce sits on the southern coast and experienced Hurricane Maria’s fury directly off the Caribbean Sea. The terrain around the city quickly becomes mountainous and is home to about a million people.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced Friday that the death toll had risen to 34, to which Ponce-area officials added many had died due to the lack of oxygen tanks and electricity to run life support systems in the hospitals. The governor wants to make repairing rural hospitals a priority for hurricane recovery.

Officials all over Puerto Rico worry about the health risks as the medical safety net has become ever more frayed. Several Democrats in Congress are calling for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to transport the ill to the mainland.

Hammack will be part of a meeting Sunday night with physicians with Children’s Hospital and Oschner Health System to discuss the logistics of evacuating patients from Ponce-area hospitals. The plane can take six patients to New Orleans.

Louisiana hospitals have been sending medications and other supplies to a hanger at the Louis Armstrong International Airport for shipment to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, he said.

Peterson said Tuesday’s plane will land in Ponce, which will help rescuers get the supplies out quicker. It will also circumvent the bottleneck in San Juan, where much of the humanitarian aid has been unable to get to people in need because there are not enough truck drivers.

Hammack, whose email is at hammack@hammackjones.com, and Peterson, whose email address is petersonk@legis.la.gov, are organizing the collection of relief materials.

Because of time considerations, the group is collecting funds through Link Stryjewski Foundation, a charitable organization attached to the restaurant group. The foundation’s website address is https://linkstryjewski.org/

Hammack said to note that the contribution is for Puerto Rico and 100 percent of the funds will go to hurricane recovery.

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