Residents of La Perla, an oceanfront neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that suffered extensive damage during Hurricane Maria, have erected handwritten signs asking for water and other basic supplies. (Photo courtesy of Wilfred Labiosa/WAVES AHEAD)
LGBT Puerto Ricans who live in the D.C. area say their family and friends remain in a precarious situation nearly a month after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. commonwealth.
Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Latinx and Catholic Initiatives, on Monday told the Washington Blade that her parents who live in Caguas, which is about 20 miles south of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, still have no electricity at their home. Meléndez also said their water “comes and goes.”
Maria flooded her parents’ home and destroyed their deck and fence.
Meléndez told the Blade her parents have “been spending exorbitant amounts of money on propane for their generator, which” runs from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. She also said her mother told her a neighbor drilled holes into a large soda bottle, attached it to a broom stick and made a makeshift washing machine out of it.
“She’s very excited about this,” joked Meléndez.
Alec Rivera, who lives in Montgomery Village, Md., with his fiancé, told the Blade that most of his family lives in Mayagüez, Aguadilla, Cabo Rojo and Arecibo on Puerto Rico’s west and northwest coasts respectively. He also said he has relatives who live in Toa Alta, which is roughly 18 miles southwest of San Juan.
Rivera told the Blade that Maria “completely uprooted and damaged” the cistern at his great aunt’s house in Toa Alta. He said the hurricane largely spared his grandmother’s home, but electricity and cell phone service remains “spotty.”
Rivera told the Blade his cousin had a baby the day after Maria made landfall. He said she stayed in a hotel for more than a week after giving birth.
Situation ‘better’ in San Juan
Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on Sept. 20 with 155 mph winds. Hurricane Irma brushed the U.S. commonwealth on Sept. 7.
Puerto Rican officials say Maria’s death toll stands at 48, but this figure is expected to rise.
More than 80 percent of Puerto Ricans remain without electricity and nearly half of those who live in the U.S. commonwealth lack access to safe drinking water. Maria also caused significant damage to Puerto Rico’s transportation and communications infrastructure.
Victoria Rodríguez Roldán, who lives in D.C., is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that urges Puerto Rico to allow transgender people to change the gender marker on their birth certificates. She is also the director of the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project.
Rodríguez’s siblings and niece live in San Juan. She told the Blade on Monday that other members of her family live in Juncos, which is located between Caguas and Humacao in southeastern Puerto Rico.
“In San Juan the situation is much better,” said Rodríguez, noting the only way she has been able to communicate with her relatives in Juncos is via text message.
“I’ve managed to talk to most of them at this point,” she added. “There is no water or running water right now.”
Food and Friends donates to Puerto Rico HIV/AIDS group
Advocacy groups in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. mainland continue to provide assistance to LGBT Puerto Ricans in the wake of Maria.
A CenterLink campaign has raised nearly $20,000 for the LGBT Community Center of Puerto Rico in San Juan’s Hato Rey neighborhood. Food and Friends has pledged to donate at least $30,000 to Bill’s Kitchen, a San Juan-based organization that provides meals to Puerto Ricans with HIV/AIDS.
“We are taking care of many people,” Bill’s Kitchen Executive Director Sandy Torres told the Blade on Tuesday in a short email she sent from her iPhone. “LGTB people always suffer a lot more. That is no different with the hurricane.”
Wilfred Labiosa, co-founder of WAVES AHEAD, an organization that works with at-risk groups in Puerto Rico, told the Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from San Juan that he and other members of his group have been able to reach Caguas and other cities and towns across the island.
“Some communities we have been to, we are the only ones who have outreached,” he said.
Labiosa told the Blade a trans woman was not given access to a cell phone to call her relatives in Arecibo when other people at the shelter in which she is “living” had access to one.
“She was left behind,” said Labiosa. “That was solved in a few hours, but that’s the treatment.”
He also said some trans Puerto Ricans are leaving the island in order to receive hormone treatment.
Trump criticism sparks outrage
Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico less than 16 months after a gunman killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Nearly half of those who died during the massacre — which was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history until a gunman killed 58 people during a country music festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 — were LGBT Puerto Ricans.
Six flags with each color of the rainbow fly in Third Millennium Park in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 6, 2016. A memorial to the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre is also inside the park. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
President Trump sparked widespread outrage last month when he attacked San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz
in a series of tweets after she criticized his administration’s response to Maria. LGBT Puerto Ricans with whom the Blade spoke for this story also mocked Trump for throwing rolls of paper towels to a crowd at a church in Guaynabo on Oct. 3.
“It’s going to take a federal government that is willing to acknowledge we are Americans, that Puerto Rico is part of the United States, that we are equal basically and a federal government that is willing to give Puerto Rico the ability to negotiate it’s debt in its current situation and to acknowledge this is American soil and part of American responsibility and be willing to do the same response that is going on in Florida, Texas and so forth,” Rodríguez told the Blade as she discussed the federal government’s response to Maria.
Meléndez was more direct, noting a friend lives near the church in which Trump threw the rolls of paper towels.
“She said her neighbors were pissed,” Meléndez told the Blade. “She lives in a town that is pretty conservative and pretty pro-statehood. Even then, they were like. I need water. I don’t need you to throw paper towels at me.”
Caribbean activists launch relief efforts
St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the French island of Guadeloupe suffered significant damage from Maria before it made landfall in Puerto Rico. The hurricane caused widespread destruction in Dominica when it passed over the island nation on Sept. 18.
Irma caused widespread destruction in Barbuda, St. Barts, St. Martin, Anguilla, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos less than two weeks earlier.
The hurricane damaged an LGBT community center in Santo Domingo, Cuba, when it made landfall on the island’s north central coast on Sept. 9 with 160 mph winds. Irma caused significant damage in the Florida Keys when it made another landfall east of Key West, Fla., on Sept. 11 as a Category 4 hurricane.
Hurricane Irma damaged a portion of the Centro Comunitario de Cultura, an LGBT community center in Santo Domingo, Cuba. The activists who operate the community center continue to seek clothes and other items to help the area’s LGBT residents recover from the hurricane that devastated Cuba’s north central coast in September. (Photo courtesy of Victor Manuel Dueñas/Centro Comunitario de Cultura)
Lavonne Wise, an LGBT rights advocate who works for the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, which provides assistance to survivors of sexual and domestic violence, lives with her partner in Frederiksted on the island’s west coast.
Wise on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview the island is “greening up again,” but the ground remains saturated from heavy rain.
She said there has been “progress” in St. Croix, noting the federal government’s response to the hurricanes in the Virgin Islands has been vastly better than in Puerto Rico. Wise nevertheless said she and her partner have not had power at their home since Irma brushed St. Croix six weeks ago.
“It’s going to be a long road,” said Wise.
Maykel González, a Cuban LGBT activist and journalist who lives in Sagua la Grande, which is on the island’s north central coast, said he has been unable to report from Irma-damaged areas because “the police threatened me.” He said he has nevertheless been able to speak with some of the areas LGBT residents.
“This is the worst disaster of this type through which they have lived,” González told the Blade. “Some of them have suffered damages to their roofs.”
“In Sagua la Grande there is transsexual prostitution in the area around the train station,” he added, referring to sex workers who worked in the area before Irma. “They have returned to ‘work.’”
The Jamaica-based Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, which provides healthcare and other services to people with HIV/AIDS and other vulnerable groups in the Caribbean, and the Center for Integrated Training and Research, a Dominican Republic-based HIV/AIDS service organization known by the acronym COIN, are working to provide assistance to the hurricanes’ LGBT victims. The Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality, a St. Lucia-based group, has also been working to help them.
Kenita Placide, the group’s executive director, told the Blade on Tuesday during a Skype interview from St. Lucia that four advocates from Dominica lost their mother during Maria. She also said the hurricane destroyed other activists’ homes on the island.
“Some of them have no where to stay,” said Placide.
Placide told the Blade that two activists from Dominica were able to travel to St. Lucia last week and attend a women’s conference the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality organized.
She said activists from Dominica have been able to bring empty suitcases they can fill with donated clothes and other items that United and Strong, a St. Lucian advocacy group, and her organization have received. Placide told the Blade the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality has also been able to top-off cell phones in Dominica once her organization receives the numbers.
“It was better to send items,” she said, referring specifically to Dominica. “The country doesn’t have many things to buy, so it’s actually a better to send things to them in country.”
Placide also told the Blade that people with HIV who live on the hurricane-impacted islands are also not able to access their medications.
“It’s definitely an issue. Even the tracing of the said persons are also very difficult because a lot of people are misplaced right now,” she said. “A lot of people lost all this medication and all access during the hurricane.”
Gay, lesbian 2018 Caribbean cruises scheduled
Trekr Adventures, a D.C.-based company that organizes sailing trips around the world, earlier this year organized an all-LGBT racing team in the 2017 BVI Spring Regatta in the British Virgin Islands.
Josh Seefried, co-founder of Trekr Adventures, told the Blade on Monday the company has raised more than $1,000 that it has given to two recovery funds in the archipelago. He said people from the British Virgin Islands who were at the Annapolis Boat Shows earlier this month described “complete devastation,” but added those who travel to them asked how they can support the recovery efforts.
Jim Cone, the vice president of marketing for Atlantis Events, which operates a number of gay cruises throughout the Caribbean, told the Blade on Monday the company is working with Alturi, an organization that seeks to promote further engagement on LGBT and intersex issues, and other groups “to provide much-needed relief to residents of the Caribbean, including San Juan” in Puerto Rico.
A cruise that is scheduled to leave Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 20 will stop in San Juan; Labadee, Haiti, and St. Maarten. A second cruise that is scheduled to depart from San Juan on March 18 will stop in Barbados, St. Lucia, Martinique and St. Martin.
Cone told the Blade the cruise will dock in St. Martin as opposed to St. Barts because of “extensive pier damage” in the French island’s capital of Gustavia.
“We have confirmed that at this time, both our Caribbean cruises should be able to operate their full itineraries as scheduled,” he said.
A spokesperson for Olivia Cruises, a travel company that caters to lesbians, on Tuesday declined to comment.
The company’s website notes a Caribbean cruise that will mark its 45th anniversary will leave Fort Lauderdale on April 2. San Juan and St. Croix are among the destinations that are listed.
San Juan City Hall in July 2016. Gay and lesbian cruise ships are scheduled to dock in the Puerto Rican capital next year. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)