Caribbean fam­i­lies try to re­build

Yuma Sun - - OPINION -

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The shrieks of chil­dren play­ing vol­ley­ball and the oc­ca­sional bark­ing of dogs echoed in­side Puerto Rico’s largest con­ven­tion cen­ter, trans­formed into a shel­ter for hur­ri­cane vic­tims from other Caribbean is­lands as hun­dreds of fam­i­lies dev­as­tated by the Cat­e­gory 5 storm tran­si­tion to­ward new lives. For many, that in­cluded tear­ful good­byes as they leave be­hind chil­dren with friends or fam­ily on the U.S. main­land, where they can go to school while their par­ents re­turn to jobs on the is­lands and try to re­build their lives.

Puerto Rico has re­ceived more than 2,000 U.S. cit­i­zens who were liv­ing or va­ca­tion­ing in is­lands bat­tered by Hur­ri­cane Irma last week, in­clud­ing more than 500 who ar­rived via cruise ship on Thurs­day.

Many live in the U.S. and Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands and were head­ing from San Juan to the U.S. main­land to leave their chil­dren with rel­a­tives and then go back home to re­sume work so they can keep pro­vid­ing for their loved ones.

“I’m go­ing to miss you, and you’re go­ing to miss me too, but this is what it’s go­ing to be for now,” Josette Cooper, a 43-year-old school teacher, re­called telling her young son after they ar­rived in Puerto Rico.

She ex­plained that he would live with his aunt in Or­lando, and that she didn’t know yet when they would be re­united be­cause it’s un­clear how long re­con­struc­tion ef­forts would take.

“They don’t know what to say,” Cooper said of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands. “They don’t want to give us false hope.”

Raquel Oloye, a 41-yearold nurse who lives on Tor­tola, the largest is­land in the Bri­tish chain, also was plan­ning to leave her three young chil­dren in Or­lando with her mother and re­turn to work soon. Like Cooper, she and the chil­dren were stay­ing at the con­ven­tion cen­ter and sleep­ing on cots be­cause they could not af­ford a ho­tel. She said she left the Bri­tish ter­ri­tory be­cause ba­sic sup­plies were run­ning low.

“I was wor­ried that the chil­dren weren’t eating,” she said, tears streaming her face as she spoke of hav­ing to sep­a­rate from them.

Vol­un­teers at the con­ven­tion cen­ter played with her chil­dren and oth­ers, try­ing to main­tain a sense of nor­malcy dur­ing the tran­si­tion. On Wed­nes­day night, the chil­dren gath­ered around a screen that was play­ing “Peppa Pig,” an animated Bri­tish TV show.

“It was the first time they smiled,” Oloye said of her chil­dren, who are 9, 6 and 4.

Through­out the morn­ing, evac­uees con­tin­ued to stream out of the cruise ship docked along­side the his­toric part of Puerto Rico’s cap­i­tal, anx­ious to re­con­nect with fam­ily and friends.

Sinead Bur­kett, a 26-year-old prop­erty man­ager who lives in At­lanta, wiped away tears as she waited for her two broth­ers and a sis­ter to ar­rive from St. John. She flew to Puerto Rico to wel­come them and said they would be stay­ing with her, her hus­band and their two chil­dren in At­lanta un­til life re­turned to nor­mal in the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands. Their mother, Maria Chi­ap­pero, a 49-year-old house­keeper at a villa in St. John, would also be stay­ing with them tem­po­rar­ily and then go home if she could find a job.

“They plan to re­build,” Chi­ap­pero said of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials’ re­cov­ery plans for the is­land. “They say that, but I don’t know.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

COTS ARE SET UP IN A CON­VEN­TION CEN­TER trans­formed into a shel­ter for vic­tims of Hur­ri­cane Irma, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thurs­day. The U.S. ter­ri­tory of Puerto Rico has re­ceived nearly 2,000 U.S. cit­i­zens who were liv­ing or va­ca­tion­ing on in the U.S. and Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands, in­clud­ing more than 500 who ar­rived via a cruise ship on Thurs­day, the first such ar­rival of its kind.

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