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ON THE SCENE: Keene family will not forget Puerto Rico

January 19, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Twenty years ago, the North Country was enveloped in ice resulting in one of the worst disasters to hit the region, initially leaving 4 million people in Canada and the Northern Forest without power, some for as long as four weeks.

The weight of the ice took out more than 1,000 transmission towers, 35,000 wooden utility poles and collapsed many barns trapping or killing livestock inside. More than 45 people died from a combination of falling ice, hypothermia, house fires, car accidents and carbon monoxide poisoning.

In New York state, more than 4.6 million acres of trees were damaged by the 1998 Ice Storm, vestiges that can still be seen when driving through the Cascade Lakes as well as in many other areas. The recovery effort brought in electrical crews from as far away as Kansas. The federal government quickly allocated $48 million to help Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York recover, and massive volunteer effort worked to clear roads and transmission corridors of downed trees and limbs.

Article Photos

The Haverlicks pose at home. From left are Noah, Japanese foreign exchange student Ryo Kobayashi, Justin, John and Debra (Whitson).
(Photo provided — Naj Wikoff )

As bad as all that was, consider the people of Puerto Rico. Four months after Hurricane Maria's 155 mph winds battered the region, more than 40 percent of the island's 3.4 million population is still without power. The storm took down 80 percent of utility poles and transmission lines and knocked out cell service for much of the island. Today, 30 percent of the population still does not have access to water for bathing or toilets. Many people get their water or do their washing in springs and creeks that run alongside roads.

The island's forests were severely damaged. Ecologist Grizelle Gonzalez said the canopy of the El Yunque National Forest "was completely gone." She and her colleagues believe that about a fifth of the trees on the island may die. Plus, they are concerned for the fate of several indigenous tropical birds listed as among the most endangered in the word.

An additional concern is that the national forest is the source of 20 percent of the island's fresh drinking water. And the latest estimates put the death toll at more than 1,000.

Last summer, the Haverlick-Whitson family of Keene had made plans to spend their Christmas holidays in Puerto Rico. They still went, but this time to volunteer and do what they could to help the people recover. They felt they could help in two ways; through giving time and energy as needed, and by still going, as any money they spent in restaurants, stores, and lodging facilities would be desperately needed by the island's tourism-driven economy.

"When Hurricane Maria first hit, we weren't even sure we could get to the island," said Debra Whitson. "As things progressed, we were hearing from friends like Carla Williams [a Keene resident with a home on the island where the Haverlicks originally planned to stay] who said, 'Go, spend your tourist dollars there. They need tourism; their economy depends upon it. Things are recovering, and if tourists don't go, the recovery will be slower.' We felt we shouldn't just go and have people serve us rum drinks and lemonade in a pineapple, but that we should do something of service while we were there."

They found a place to stay in Dorado, a community not hit by the center of the storm with housing that had both power, water and other necessities. They were struck by how some areas were relatively intact while an adjacent neighborhood has homes missing roofs, walls, and in some cases, obliterated. They realized that every aspect of island life had been stressed, from downed power lines snaking about to denuded forests, the behavior of livestock and people's pets, and to what was available in markets and restaurant menus.

"They did a fantastic job in cleaning up the damage Maria caused to the town, but there was still a lot of damage, especially to the trees and some surrounding buildings," said Noah Haverlick, a student at Keene Central School.

In Dorado, the owner of the Airbnb where they stayed linked them with the head of emergency management for the city. They went to city hall for their initial meeting and were sent on to the office of cultural affairs. As the storm forced the closing of museums and other cultural attractions, their staff was redeployed to help with the recovery effort. The Haverlicks' job assignments included delivering water to the outlying hilly rural neighborhoods.

"We had to load vans with six-packs of gallon water jugs, which were not light," said John Haverlick. "I never realized how heavy water could be! We had this bucket brigade and would pass six gallons of water from one to another. There was this woman in the van stacking them. I couldn't keep up with her. She grabbed them like they were feathers or something!"

After they loaded the vans, John and the boys, which included Ryo Kobayashi, an exchange student spending the 2017-18 school year living with the Haverlicks, went into the hilly remote sections to deliver water to people in their homes.

"I was amazed by how upbeat the people were," said John. "Some had been without water and electricity since Hurricane Irma hit. They weren't frustrated, angry or resentful. They seemed very accepting that this natural disaster hit and now they had to make due. The resilience of these people was remarkable. People took great pride in themselves. They were well kept and well dressed. You would think living without electricity and water people would let things go and plod through the day, but these were people who had pride in themselves. They went about life as best as they could."

The Haverlicks said people were appreciative that they were there volunteering. Many there felt that U.S. President Donald Trump had shown disrespect for them when he visited the island. At the same time, they felt their government had let them down by not being prepared for a hurricane of Maria's magnitude. Many also felt that our national government were treating them as second-class Americans, that they were not getting the same level of resources and attention they would have had their community been part of the continental U.S.

While the John and the boys were out hauling water, Debra worked in a warehouse filled with FEMA supplies. Her job was to check food packets, pulling out those with expired dates. Debra is a charter member of the Zonta Club in Lake Placid, an international women's service organization and brought with her $2,000 that the club had raised for the relief effort. While there, she met with six women from the local chapter.

"They were so impressed and appreciative that we came to volunteer," said Debra. "Obviously, we don't look like Puerto Rican islanders. Everybody identified the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Haverlick clan along with Ryo from Japan as foreign visitors. People made a point of coming up to us to say thank you for coming and seeing our island and for helping us. Even if we were just having a meal in a restaurant, they were thankful that we were there."

"We stopped at a roadside place that was very popular with the locals," said Justin Haverlick, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "We were having trouble reading the menu, and this guy came up and asked us if we needed help. He was super nice to help us, and he and his friends then checked in on us during the evening to see how we liked the food, how we liked the island. They were giving us the message to please come to the island and share what you have experienced and seen."

Bringing an exchange student with them was a bit of a challenge as volunteering to help a community recover after a natural disaster isn't a part of a typical school curriculum. Plus, the agency was concerned about the safety of students in their charge. However, once the Haverlicks were able to demonstrate they had a safe place to stay, Ryo was allowed to participate.

"My parents told me that since Japan has so many natural disasters, such as earthquakes and the tsunamis, that experiencing Puerto Rico after the hurricane and helping as a volunteer would be good for me," said Ryo. "I learned that when people get damaged that they don't get depressed, but instead become determined to rebuild. These people we met are trying hard. They made me feel proud. It was very moving."

The Haverlicks recommend that others at the very least consider Puerto Rico for their vacations, and ideally go to volunteer, which son Justin has gone back to do with college classmates for another two weeks.

Meanwhile, people in Puerto Rico have put up signs on their shops saying "Abierto," open for business.



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