NH relief volunteers share their stories from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico

New Hampshire Union Leader
October 17. 2017 11:57PM
ABOVE LEFT: Wesley Miller, a safety and occupational health specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, recently returned from hurricane relief work with the Red Cross in Puerto Rico. ABOVE RIGHT: Alex Ray, founder of the Common Man restaurant group, recently arrived in Puerto Rico, where he set up mass-production cooking operations in restaurants closed by the storm. (COURTESY)

They were bracing for what they would see when they arrived in hurricane-battered Puerto Rico, but two New Hampshire men helping with relief efforts say nothing could prepare them for the magnitude of the damage they found across the island.

One volunteer just returned from Puerto Rico, while the other recently arrived there.

“It was a pretty sobering experience,” said Wesley Miller of Grantham, an emergency management specialist who came home Saturday after spending nearly three weeks with a Red Cross unit that dispensed critical supplies for residents left without power, clean water and in some cases shelter after Hurricane Maria struck Sept. 20.

“We were mainly trying to get clean water to folks and we were trying to get them tarps so they could at least put something over the roof of their house,” Miller said. “It’s still the rainy season, so just a deluge of rain was happening every afternoon.”

Miller, a safety and occupational health specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, was catching up Monday on some of the work that accumulated during his absence.

Meanwhile, in San Juan on Monday, New Hampshire restaurateur Alex Ray spoke during a break from cooking in one of three production kitchens he helped set up to make bulk quantities of food to be trucked to the outskirts of San Juan.

Ray, founder of the Common Man family of restaurants, said the destruction is overwhelming in San Juan, and worse the farther he ventured outside the capital city. 

“This thing went right through the middle like a zipper,” Ray said of the hurricane. “I really couldn’t believe it — from one end of the island to the other.” 

Both Miller and Ray said they felt compelled to help in the aftermath of Maria; much more assistance is needed, they said. The storm wiped out the island’s power grid; electricity is scarce and is expected to remain that way for several more months, at least. 

Drinking water is also hard to come by, especially in remote areas where disaster relief was slow to arrive, impeded by washed-out roads, mudslides, fallen power lines and other destruction. 

Ray worked with some contacts from the restaurant industry to set up kitchens in restaurants around San Juan that are closed indefinitely, but operational. He described cooking in the dark using propane and natural gas, making enough stew, spaghetti and other bulk meals to feed up to 1,000 people at a time. 

“Food is just trickling out. It’s locked up on docks and slow getting out,” Ray said. “There’s no fresh produce. We have a hard time making food because we can’t get fresh things, so it gets kind of creative.”
Red Cross relief supplies are readied for distribution in Puerto Rico, where most of the island remains without power nearly a month after Hurricane Maria devastated much of the Caribbean. (COURTESY)

Ray, known for his philanthropic projects in New Hampshire, said he had been scheduled to take a trip to Italy, but revised his travel plans.

“I said, ‘How could I do that if this is going on?’” 

Miller suggested Granite Staters wishing to help make donations to the Red Cross, which is still dispensing essentials like drinking water and materials to help rebuild.

“They are the largest game in town. They have a greater reach and they have the ability to get supplies in and out,” Miller said. “That would really be the most beneficial thing for all the people in Puerto Rico that are struggling right now.” 

Miller said he was working with the Red Cross helping prepare volunteers to assist in recovery efforts in Texas and Florida from hurricanes Harvey and Irma. After Maria swept across the Caribbean, Miller said he was happy to sign on when the Red Cross asked if he was available.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock also quickly signed off on letting him get to the island for the early recovery efforts.

“I count my blessings that they allowed me to do that,” he said. “It was really sort of a life-altering experience.” 


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