CT is connected to Puerto Rico

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The first indication I got that something was seriously wrong came from an email from a friend who is also from the Joplin, Missouri area.

It was a beautiful Sunday in May. Joplin High School had just celebrated their graduation, but my friend, whose father taught at the local middle school, saw an ominous message crawling at the bottom of the CNN screen.

“Do you watch the weather channel? ” he wrote.

I hadn’t, but I turned on the television to see images of my hometown blown away by thunder. A third of Joplin had been swept away by an EF5 tornado that carved a 22-mile-long path of destruction through two counties. The names of the dead were trickling in, and that list would include a man named Johnnie, spelled that, who I used to run around on the playground in elementary school.

Although I am from a small town just up north, I came to Jesus in Joplin, got my first job in Joplin and my first apartment. I knew every street in this town, but I didn’t recognize the piles of shards on the screen. I started calling everyone I knew, starting with my family members. My aunt answered, but her voice was flat. I asked if she was alone because I was afraid to hang up. My uncle was there, but they had just experienced 38 minutes of a storm that killed 161 people. They were OK, but shaken.

I couldn’t find my older brother and each of my voicemails got meaner and meaner. My first “Hey mate, I saw the tornado on TV. Call me back” became a profanity-laden message that promised dire consequences if I didn’t hear from him. When he finally called back, he told me he’d been south of the tornado’s range and was fine, although he was a bit worried about my angering him.

I flew because Joplin is home, and home hurt me. The streets where I once worked on a church bus looked like a moonscape. Trees were stripped of their bark and metal was twisted around these bare trees. I had experienced tornadoes (this is Tornado Alley, after all) but nothing compared to this.

The only time I cried was when I saw all these other volunteers crowding into that corner of the state just because they wanted to help. Some guy named Clint loaded up his smoker and 450 pounds of pork, drove to Joplin and started handing out divine sandwiches to anyone who passed by. I met a demo team from California and another from Florida, both of whom had to load their vans before the rain stopped Joplin, then they had to drive fast. It wasn’t just domestic help. A man has traveled all the way from Japan to pay after Americans traveled to his home country to help rebuild after a devastating tsunami killed nearly 16,000 people just months earlier.

CNN posted a story about the best way to help Joplin, but they don’t need to care. In total, the municipality has benefited from a few $17.7 million in volunteer work — more than 1.5 million hours – only. Kind-hearted people gave $39 million for reconstruction efforts, and that only counts the money sent to larger organizations such as Ozarks Community Foundation.

And then there was federal aid.

President Barack Obama came and gave a speech in what is decidedly not Obama country. During his first presidential campaign, NPR posited that Joplin was the “the reddest corner of Missouri,” but locals who couldn’t get tickets to hear him lined the streets and waved flags at his motorcade.

It wasn’t half. The United Arab Emirates sent laptops to every high school student in Joplin, then helped fund a new neonatal intensive care unit at a local hospital. I have been out many times and it was mind blowing to watch the transformation. A year after the disaster, President Obama returned to give the opening speech for Joplin’s class of 2012 and repeated the refrain “because you’re from Joplin” (you’ll understand how good people can be). To benefit from this kind of kindness from strangers is a lesson in humility and beauty. It makes you realize that you are connected in ways you never imagined.

I think about it every time devastating weather hits, and I’ve thought about it a lot since Hurricane Fiona. plowed through Puerto Ricowho was already in trouble. Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc in 2017 and parts of the island had yet to recover. After this storm, about 13,000 people left the island to come to Connecticut, and most of them came to Hartford.

Although less intense than Maria, Fiona left the island in the dark and without water in triple-digit heat. Early estimates indicate that the island took a multi-billion dollar success. President Joe Biden has pledged to cover Puerto Rico’s recovery costs for next monthbut Puerto Rico needs much more than discarded paper towelsor even a month of recovery.

Approximately 17% of Connecticut residents are Hispanic/Latin. In Connecticut, most people in this population are from Puerto Rico. According to the State Department of Administrative Services, Hartford has the most “densely populated Puerto Rican population in the world– including Puerto Rico. Yes, it’s easier to load up your van and rush to Joplin than to drive to Salinas Where Caguas, but many organizations on the ground can benefit from your help. It may be for me the memory of a line of anonymous volunteers going to Joplin, but we must never forget that Connecticut is intrinsically linked to the island. We are connected.

Susan Campbell is the author of “Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood”, “Tempest-Tossed: The Mind of Isabella Beecher Hooker”, and “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl”. She is Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Haven, where she teaches journalism.

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