Amherst duo with ties to Puerto Rico worry

  • Damage to a Ceiba tree on Vieques caused by Hurricane Maria. —Submitted Photo

  • Map of Puerto Rico, showing capital, San Juan, along with islands Vieques and Culebra. Maps4News

  • The Vieques home of Peggy and Murray Schwartz. —Submitted Photo

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 05, 2017

For 12 hours this summer, Sydne Didier swam the waters around Culebra, circumnavigating the 20.4 miles of the tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico’s mainland.

“When I went there initially I fell in love with Culebra immediately,” said Didier, who is hoping to become recognized for her solo swim by the Marathon Swimmers Foundation.

“I connected with a lot of people, and the tightknit community embraced me,” Didier said, recalling popping into a restaurant following her swim and the outpouring of love from the island’s residents in the days before Puerto Rico was hit this month by Hurricane Irma and then suffered a devastating blow from Hurricane Maria.

Peggy and Murray Schwartz for several years have vacationed on Vieques, the better-known and bigger island with about 9,000 residents, living in the Mambiche neighborhood side by side with people from all walks of life, and near chickens, roosters, dogs and cats.

In 2008, they had sabbaticals in the island, working on a biography of American dance pioneer Pearl Primus.

“We got there and fell in love with Vieques. The beaches are some of the most beautiful in the Caribbean and there is such quality of interaction with people,” Peggy Schwartz said. “We have such a deep affection for the place.”

Both Didier and Schwartz, speaking from their Amherst homes, say they are heartbroken for the hardships now faced in Puerto Rico, including a shortage of water that has prompted rationing, the limited gas and electricity and the unknown status of some of their friends and acquaintances on the islands. On Vieques, Schwartz said many homes were damaged and there was also a tremendous loss of horses that inhabit the island.

“Right now, those of us who love it, we feel pretty helpless,” Didier said. “They are now in such dire straits.”

On Sept. 26, Didier brought a box full of first aid kits made with her son, Aidan, to Nueva Esperanza in Holyoke, the primary site for Western Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico, which is coordinating the distribution of supplies. In each she included a handwritten inventory list and a personalized note expressing love for Puerto Rico from Massachusetts and extending the human connection for those who receive the items.

“It feels really bad to not be able to offer much more than ‘we love you,’” Didier said.

Schwartz said she isn’t sure about the condition of her island home, noting that a pergola on the roof may have blown off, based on satellite images, and there may be water damage inside.

“The neighborhood looks like it came through the hurricane relatively unscathed,” Schwartz said.

Knowing she won’t be able to visit soon, the priority is getting planes with supplies to the island.

“There is no going down yet. What’s most needed right now is to contribute to relief funds,” Schwartz said.

Didier said she is doing a small part to reach those on Culebra to whom she has grown connected in four trips, and bring attention to the challenges in getting relief supplies from San Juan.

“Everyone knows the mainland, everyone knows Vieques, but we want people to know this tiny island that otherwise might be forgotten,” Didier said.

Culebra, she said, continues to have leftover munitions unearthed from U.S. military training, but also has a natural environment that includes beaches filled with turtles and abundant coral life and wildlife.

Among people she has gotten to know is a local boat captain who took photos of Didier during her swim and kept the Culebra residents up to date on her swim through social media.

A Facebook group, in fact, has given Didier some comfort in learning that some people are OK.

Schwartz said she follows a similar Facebook group.

“We still haven’t been able to reach two artist friends, so there’s still that anxiety in the air,” Schwartz said.

In addition to first aid supplies, Didier said she has made phone calls and sent emails to elected representatives encouraging the lifting of the Jones Act, which prohibits non-Amercian ships from bringing supplies to Puerto Rico.

Understanding that money will be critical, Didier said she appreciates that Freedom Credit Union has established a regional relief fund for Puerto Rico.

Schwartz said a GoFundMe page called ViequesLove directs money directly to Vieques.

Whatever happens next, Schwartz said it is most important for people to understand the unspeakable hardship being suffered by fellow citizens.

“Vieques and Puerto Rico and Saint John (Virgin Islands) are part of the United States and these are United States citizens,” Schwartz said.

How to give

The efforts to draw attention by local residents to the plight of Puerto Rico following the hurricanes comes as the Baker administration announced the formation of a task force that will ensure Massachusetts can support residents of Puerto Rico who evacuate the island and seek temporary or permanent residence in the state.

The administration said in a statement that it is committed to meeting the needs of disaster survivors by providing financial, housing, health care, jobs and reunification services.

Additionally, a Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico Fund has been created to collect and distributed money for reconstruction and relief in Puerto Rico. The fund, created by the state, members of the Boston Foundation and the Latino Legacy Fund, among others, will be advised by an advisory committee of about a dozen experts from the Massachustts Puerto Rican diaspora community.

Parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Springfield are also being encouraged by Bishop Mitchell Rozanski to collect money for Hurricane Maria relief, following $60,000 raised, separate from individual donation made to Catholic Charities USA, for helping the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.