By Glenn Garvin
MIAMI | Within hours after Hurricane Maria crashed ashore last month, officials at Fort Lauderdale’s Nova Southeastern University knew their Puerto Rico campus would be closed for weeks or even longer while the shattered island recovered. And, with power, water and even most forms of commerce knocked out, they worried about what might be happening to their 770 students, faculty and staff in San Juan.
When Tampa cardiologist Kiran Patel — who through a family foundation has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Nova — learned of their worries, he said the solution was simple: I’ve got a plane that most of the time just sits on the runway. Why don’t we use it get supplies to our people in Puerto Rico?
It was the beginning of a supply route that now has funneled about 6,000 pounds of food, water, toilet paper, flashlights, batteries and baby wipes to the Nova campus. That might be a small drop in a very large bucket on an island of 3.5 million people, but it’s still 770 or so people that the Puerto Rican government, stretched thin in every direction by a catastrophe of near-Biblical proportions, doesn’t have to worry about.
“Depending on government and professionals to help you is not the way I was raised,” Patel said. “What’s happening in Puerto Rico is not a government problem. It’s our problem. It’s society’s problem, and we all have to act.”
Nova’s effort to bypass the delays clamped on Puerto Rico hurricane relief by red tape, jurisdictional squabbling and limited transportation resources is by no means the only one. A growing trickle of supplies is flowing onto the island from private individuals and companies that aren’t waiting around for anybody to approve their plans, but just doing it.
“Sometimes you have to do it the Miami way,” said political-communications consultant Eleazar David Melendez, a member of an informal relief network — he calls it a “guerilla flotilla” — that has shipped nearly a million pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico in the past 10 days or so. “Not follow the rules, just get a result.”
Some of the efforts are big, some small. The rapper Pitbull sent his private plane to evacuate cancer patients. DHL flew 250,000 pounds of supplies in a single week. Two FedEx relief flights a day have arrived since the main San Juan airport reopened. The Fort Lauderdale-based medical transport company REVA sent three team members to hand out medical supplies last week.
But even a single small plane can make a big difference, the relief workers say.
“We have a lot of people with twin turboprop planes who help us,” Melendez said. “They can carry maybe 10,000 pounds tops. That doesn’t sound like much. But 10,000 pounds of insulin, that’s really important.”
Sometimes the private relief efforts are driven by personal ties to Puerto Rico, like those of Nova Southeastern or Melendez, who was born on the island. And sometimes they originate with people who realize they’re situated to help.