2017-10-25 / Voice at the Shore

Local’s daughter tells of destruction in Puerto Rico, saying donate what you can

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice shore editor

The Benrubi family in Puerto Rico before the hurricane. The Benrubi family in Puerto Rico before the hurricane. Although Hurricane Maria did not hit New Jersey, it definitely hit home for Alice Melnick, an active member of Shirat Hayam in Ventnor, whose daughter, Rebecca Benrubi, has been living in Puerto Rico for the past year and a half.

Knowing Puerto Rico would be hit, Melnick was sick with worry for her daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren. Incredibly, Benrubi retained her AT&T cell service all throughout the storm, so Melnick knew the family was unhurt and that Benrubi’s home sustained minimal damage—— unlike so many others on the island.

“The most nerve-wracking time was after the storm when water, fuel and food wasn’t available and she couldn’t get a flight out,” said Melnick. “What’s a mother to do? Every day I called every federal representative and cried about the desperate situation that she and the whole island were in.”

The Benrubis moved to Puerto Rico a year and a half ago, when Rebecca’s husband, who is CFO for the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, was transferred there. Before that, they lived in Camden County, where Rebecca grew up. Although Melnick and her husband retired to the shore in 2005, their children grew up going to Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill.

According to Benrubi, living in Puerto Rico has been an amazing experience for her family. They live down the street from a rain forest, and her children go to an exceptional international school where they meet other kids from all over the world. Until Maria hit, life was good.

Ever since the hurricane, Rebecca Benrubi counts herself as lucky. A little over a week after the storm, she and her children did get out of Puerto Rico. They moved in with friends in Deptford, where her children previously went to school (and where they are re-enrolled in school temporarily.) Her husband stayed behind in Puerto Rico, where he is scrambling to keep his company running despite flooding, lack of power and spotty wifi.

Benrubi urges those who can help to make a donation to any of the many charities collecting for the island, including San Juan’s JCC and three synagogues.

“Anything will help. It’s going to take a really long time for the island to get back to how it was,” she said. Even before the hurricane, the island was fragile, she explained. The electrical system—which is expected to be out for months—was old and precarious. Roads were in serious disrepair, and many have now been washed away by flooding.

Yet with so many tragedies in the news since Maria hit, Puerto Rico’s plight “isn’t news anymore,” said Benrubi. “A lot of people don’t realize how desperate the situation is,” she noted. Many Puerto Ricans are homeless, living in shells of their washed out homes, desperate for water, food, and relief from the heat.

In Benrubi’s neighborhood— which she described as a “Puerto Rican Cherry Hill or Haddonfield”—the houses were built on high ground and stood relatively unscathed after the storm; most had water come in through doors and windows and some lost windows and garage doors, but mostly sustained little other damage.

Yet like 90 percent of the island, she said, even her upscale neighborhood lost power. Although everyone had generators, the diesel fuel to run them was scarce and expensive. When a man appeared in the area selling diesel fuel for $8 a gallon shortly after the storm, Benrubi loaded up with fuel for her generator several times, paying just under $400 each time.

“At one point I had so much anxiety about getting fuel for the generator I couldn’t eat or sleep,” she said.

Benrubi lost water for four to five days and did laundry in a bucket of pool water. Nearby food stores were empty. Many ATMs weren’t working so people couldn’t get money. Hundreds of cars waited in lines that stretched for miles to buy gas, so she and her children just stayed home, where her kids— aged 7, 14 and 17—grew increasingly bored and restless. Yet she knew their life was good compared to many other people on the island.

“People on the west side of the island were getting 6 bottles of water and a snack pack to last an entire family for 2-3 days!” she noted. Many Puerto Ricans lost their homes, lost everything.

On her drive to the airport— the first time she was able to leave her neighborhood in over a week after the hurricane struck—she saw the devastation first hand: washed out homes, flooding, huge billboards snapped in half, trees uprooted and palm trees with their tops ripped off from the 155-mile-per-hour hurricane winds.

“This lush tropical island is now completely barren,” she said. The island, which had several rain forests, “looks like a barren winter forest. Every flower, every leaf, is gone.”

At Voice at the Shore’s deadline, Benrubi was getting ready to go back to Puerto Rico. Although there is still no power or water and hospitals lack many medical supplies, food is more readily available, the schools are reopening, and Benrubi wants her kids “to start getting back to reality” – even if it’s a new and starker reality.

“Puerto Rico’s Jewish community – which numbers roughly 3,000 people, mostly in the San Juan area – is now “actively trying to help the less fortunate… trying to feed people, get people water, doing mitzvot,” said Benrubi, who planned to get involved when she returned to the island.

San Juan’s conservative synagogue, Sha’are Zedeck, and the JCC are closely tied, and are jointly doing fundraising and outreach. According to the JCC’s blog, they have been actively involved in distributing water, food and tarps to people in devastated areas and have assisted relief efforts by Israel, UJA New York, and other relief agencies. They have also started a Hurricane Maria Relief Fund; to donate, go to jccpr.org.

San Juan’s Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom, is also collecting donations—at tbspr.org— for Puerto Ricans whose lives were upended by the hurricane, as well as for repairs needed for the synagogue. According to its website, “Although our Sanctuary is intact, our kitchen and religious school sustained flooding damage during and after hurricane Maria hit the island.” The synagogue also lacks electricity and is seeking a generator.

Chabad, which has two centers in Puerto Rico, has partnered with a local relief organization, PR4PR.org, to provide critical, humanitarian aid to those in the most challenged areas, according to its website. “Our Center is damaged but continues to function as a place of refuge providing meals, functional restrooms/showers, electronics charging station and hospitality,” the website reported.

“Puerto Rico is a humanitarian crisis!” the website declared. “Most of the island has no water, no food, no communications, no electricity! People are desperate for basic needs and with no access to funds (the banking system is off the grid) or employment. Lawlessness and looting are now rampant. Emergency funding is desperately needed for water, food, medicine, fuel, temporary housing, armed security, repairs….It will be many months before even the most basic services will be restored. We need your help!” To make a donation, go to chabadpr.com.

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