Upper Valley Residents Help in Puerto Rico

Valley News Staff Writer

Excerpt from article on Wednesday, October 11, 2017

  • Workers, including former Lebanon firefighter George Sykes, of Lebanon, N.H., unload relief supplies in the mountainous area of Guaraguao, Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria’s destruction. (Courtesy Jayne Sykes)

  • Former Lebanon firefighter George Sykes, of Lebanon, N.H., right, with fellow Red Cross workers in Puerto Rico in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Jayne Sykes)

Lebanon — Early in the morning, George Sykes wakes up in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan and prepares for a day spent delivering aid.

Along with three other American Red Cross volunteers, he hops into a box truck filled with enough goods to serve 400 families and rolls out into the island. Sometimes, the destination is only 10 minutes away. Other times, it’s an hourslong drive through mountains on roads that are still being cleared of debris.

But every time the team arrives in a town, people are waiting.

“It’s amazing, just the unofficial communication line. Suddenly people appear,” Sykes, a Democratic state representative and former Lebanon deputy fire chief, said on Monday night.

“People will line up by the hundreds and they’re just patient,” he said. “It could be blazing hot or pouring buckets and they just wait their turn and are extremely grateful.”

Sykes is one of several Upper Valley residents deployed in the Caribbean to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico nearly a month ago, killing 43 people and leaving the island’s infrastructure heavily damaged.

Sykes typically works until dark because electricity on the island is scarce. Phone service also is intermittent on the island, he said, adding that Monday marked the first time he had a Wi-Fi signal since deploying about two weeks ago.

As of Tuesday, power had been restored to 16 percent of the island, according to the territorial government. Fifty-three percent of the island’s telecommunications were functioning, but only 19 percent of cellphone antennas and 33 percent of its cell towers have been restored.

Clean drinking water is in short supply, Sykes said, as is food in some portions of the island. This past weekend, his team visited a mountain community that hadn’t seen any relief since the storm.

“The good news is that we had a nice mix of things like fresh fruit (and) water,” he said. “We had some infant formula, things like that.”

“It’s a challenge. We’re putting out as much as we can and the volunteers are working many, many hours,” said Sykes, an experienced Red Cross disaster volunteer who spent nearly two years in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

However, things are getting better and there are “glimmers of progress,” Sykes said.

When he got to the island, all of the trees were brown because the bark and leaves had been torn off. But the rainy season is bringing back vegetation, and buds are renewing hopes for revitalization.

The island’s residents also are optimistic, Sykes said. When Red Cross teams arrive, people usually help offload the trucks and deliver goods to their neighbors, he said.

“They are certainly grateful and happy when we show up and give them what we can,” Sykes said. “They work hard right along with us.”

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