VPR Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
VPR News
Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

From Providing Seeds To Medical Aid, Vermonters Take Part In Puerto Rico's Recovery

Stephan Cantor, left, and Howie Cantor, right, of West Glover, Vt., stand here with Tara Rodriguez Besosa, center, director of the Puerto Rico Resilence Fund, and the fund's van that was purchased with donations since the hurricane.
Stephan Cantor, courtesy
/
Stephan Cantor, left, and Howie Cantor, right, of West Glover, Vt., stand here with Tara Rodriguez Besosa, center, director of the Puerto Rico Resilence Fund, and the fund's van that was purchased with donations since the hurricane.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, and though news of its impact on the island has receded from the front page, a long rebuilding effort continues — and a handful of Vermonters are helping out.

Stephan Cantor and her husband Howie run a sugar-making business in West Glover. They have been visiting Puerto Rico regularly for the last 15 years.

When extent of the hurricane's devastation became known, their initial inclination was to go to the island as soon as possible and help friends cope with the hardships of living without electricity or communications infrastructure.

"But then it was sort of clear to us that just barging in, like, 'Here we are to help,' in those first few weeks was really not gonna be a great help because we were just gonna be one more mouth to feed," Stephan Cantor said.

Cantor and her husband visited friends in Puerto Rico for Thanksgiving and brought seed for farmers donated by High Mowing Seeds and Healthy Living. When they got back to Vermont, they organized a music benefit in Craftsbury that raised $1,000 to help the victims of Hurricane Maria.

Donated seeds are sorted in Puerto Rico.
Credit Stephan Cantor, courtesy
/
The Cantors brought seeds for farmers to Puerto Rico from High Mowing Seeds and Healthy Living. Here donated seeds are seen being sorted.

The couple will be returning to Puerto Rico as part of a group of eight or nine people. They'll visit a mountain town named Toro Negro, where they'll help repair a community center and do whatever is needed on a community farm.

"We may be planting seeds, we may be clearing brush," Cantor says. "What's really striking to see [in] Puerto Rico after the hurricane is the incredible amount of vegetation, trees down, limbs everywhere. You can't even believe it."

The sight of once green vegetation turning brown in the hurricane's aftermath stunned Jason Serota-Winston, a nurse in the intensive care unit at UVM Medical Center and a member of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

Serota-Winston got an email from his union in early October seeking volunteers for a two-week work trip to Puerto Rico organized by unions around the country.

"I just immediately thought, 'Wow, if I could go, I should go,'" Serota-Winston said. "And I called my manager at work and said, 'They're leaving in two days — is there any chance that I could go?'"

His manager gave him the go ahead and Serota-Winston was Vermont's sole representative on the 300-person union delegation. In Puerto Rico, he served on a medical team that went door-to-door during the day. At night he slept on a cot with other volunteers in the hallways of Roberto Clemente Coliseum.

Jason Serota-Winston, third from left, stands with a group at a community clinic in San Juan.
Credit Jason Serota-Winston, courtesy
/
Jason Serota-Winston, third from left, stands with a group of medical volunteers at a community clinic in San Juan. He served as part of a medical team that went door-to-door in Puerto Rico.

Serota-Winston recalls his mobile medical squad visiting a family with two disabled teenagers.

"The family was living on their porch because that was the only area that still had a roof," Serota-Winston says. "And the family tried to offer us a meal. That was the thing that you ran into over and over again. They would have nothing and they would still try to give you anything they had."

Vermonter Chris Herriman, who works for the Small Business Administration in Montpelier, had volunteered to work in a disaster zone, so the SBA sent her to Vieques, a small island that is part of Puerto Rico.

Herriman arrived on Nov. 6 and helped process applications for disaster loans. She didn't get a day off until Thanksgiving.

"We were working 12 hours a day, seven days a week because those are the hours of the disaster centers, as they should be," Herriman said. "I mean, we needed to be there for people no matter when they could get in."

Vermonter Chris Herriman, left, works with a survivor of Hurricane Maria at the SBA temporary headquarters in Puerto Rico.
Credit Chris Herriman, courtesy
/
Vermonter Chris Herriman, left, works with a survivor of Hurricane Maria at the SBA temporary headquarters in Puerto Rico. Herriman helped process applications for disaster loans while in Puerto Rico.

Herriman says some loan applicants walked to the SBA office. One applied for $1,000 to buy materials to rebuild her food truck.

Herriman spent a month and a half in Puerto Rico. She returned to Vermont on her birthday, admiring how determined small business people on the island were to get back on their feet again.

"These people don't want a lot. They just want enough to get them going again," Herriman says.

On Vieques, Herriman stayed at Hacienda Tamarindo, a small hotel owned by a Vermont couple that has lived there for 20 years. Burr and Linda Vail were not on Vieques when Maria struck, but they lost their possessions when much of the roof over their living quarters was blown off.

Hacienda Tamarindo is a small hotel on Vieques, Puerto Rico, owned by Vermont couple Burr and Linda Vail. The hotel sustained damage during Hurricane Maria.
Credit Burr Vail, courtesy
/
Hacienda Tamarindo is a small hotel on Vieques, Puerto Rico, owned by Vermont couple Burr and Linda Vail. The hotel sustained damage during Hurricane Maria.

The Vails are currently in South Burlington, handling logistics for the hotel. The guests are mostly Federal Emergency Management Agency staffers, truck drivers and utility repair crews, says Linda Vail.

"At least we can offer safe harbor, hot showers and a good night's sleep to these people who are coming to help us out," Linda Vail says.

Burr Vail reports that despite all the damage, the tamarind tree the hotel is named for is still standing. But more than three months after the hurricane, electricity has still not been restored.

Disclosure: Healthy Living is an underwriter of VPR.

Related Content