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Connecticut National Guardsmen En Route To Puerto Rico, But Senators Want More

About a dozen Connecticut National Guardsmen strapped into a C-130H plane Friday morning heading for Puerto Rico, adding to the contingent sent last week to help distribute supplies and relief across the island as more materials pour in every day.

Lt. Brian Hinckley piloted a delivery of 16,000 pounds of bottled water, in addition to other items, to the island wracked by Hurricane Maria on Thursday and was preparing for another loop on Friday.

“As soon as we get the engines shut down and the airplane opened up, we’re pushing out pallets,” he said. “We have more people [in the National Guard] volunteering for these trips than we have airplanes to put them in so it’s definitely an outpouring of support from the state of Connecticut.”

Hinckley was about to pilot the plane departing from Bradley Air National Guard Base in East Granby bringing guardsmen such as Master Sgt. Joshua Mead to assist with the delivery of supplies to San Juan. Only four planes are able to land each hour at the San Juan airport, so quickly unloading and sorting their cargo is crucial.

“Our mission is to go down there and essentially set up the port so we can start receiving aircraft. Once we start receiving aircraft we can start receiving supplies,” Mead said. He and the other members will be living out of tents while the island recovers from the Category 4 hurricane that struck over a week ago. There is no return date for their mission.

“The Puerto Rican National Guard has been part of the Guard community for a long time,” Mead said. “They’re part of us, they’re our brothers and sisters, so we’re going to go down there and help them so they can return home and help their families.”

More than 100 Connecticut National Guardsmen have been aiding with the massive hurricane relief efforts in Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Gov. Dannel Malloy said the state is focusing on providing aid in the form of manpower rather than supplies on the request of the Puerto Rican government.

“Quite frankly [they] don’t need a lot more clothes and food and water at this point. The best way to help … is to find one of the good organizations — Red Cross, Americares — and donate money,” he said. Malloy, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman wished the guardsmen well as they boarded the plane at the base.

Still, piles of supplies gathered for Puerto Rico abound across the Hartford area and across the country. At Aqui Me Quedo restaurant on Albany Avenue in Hartford, packages of bottled water, toilet paper, toothpaste, and other toiletries collected to send to the island crowded the dining room. A pickup truck full of packages of bottled water pulled into the parking lot on Friday afternoon, causing owner Joel Rohena’s eyes to widen.

“That better not be coming here!” he said. He had two pickups outside the restaurant ready to load up the supplies and drop them off at a warehouse to be sorted. He said business has been helped by the onslaught of visitors dropping off donations since Monday, but Friday was his last day of accepting them.

Ana Valentin Jackson, the chair of the Connecticut Institute for Community Development, said the organization has been coordinating shipments to Puerto Rico but implored community members to hold off for now.

“The problem we’re seeing right now is even though we have sent out a number of trailers to New York to be sent [to the island], they’re hitting a bottleneck in Puerto Rico,” she said. “We’re not collecting anything else unless we have a plan.”

Stamford-based Americares plans to airlift more than $3 million in medical supplies to hospitals and health centers in Puerto Rico and Dominica, the organization said Friday. The shipment will include antibiotics, wound-care supplies, intravenous fluids, mental health medications and chronic disease treatments. Three tons of medicine will leave Sunday on a chartered flight from Florida to San Juan. Red Cross volunteers from Connecticut have been on the ground in Puerto Rico for almost a week trying to coordinate the trucking of supplies throughout the island.

A number of fundraisers are taking place across Connecticut this weekend, including one led by Latino state legislators at El Mercado in Hartford on Saturday and another organized by the CT Puerto Rican Agenda and other community groups at the Center for Latino Progress on Sunday.

“We’re trying to raise as much money as we possibly can to personally bring it there,” state Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr. of Waterbury said, noting that the legislators will pay for their own travel. “One-hundred percent collected will be 100 percent donated.”

States across the U.S. have sent teams of relief workers, including National Guardsmen — Hinckley, the pilot flying emergency equipment and personnel to Puerto Rico, said he has encountered guardsmen from Missouri to Kentucky to Georgia at the San Juan airport — but some are calling out the Trump administration for what they see as a slow response of federal aid.

Blumenthal and Sen. Chris Murphy criticized the president for holding back on sending military resources to Puerto Rico compared to the response to Hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida, and even the 7.0 earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 200,000 people. They said there are 50 military helicopters currently on the island compared to 300 in Haiti after the earthquake.

“There is a double standard for disaster relief and everyone in the world is watching right now,” Murphy said at a press conference with Blumenthal outside Aqui Me Quedo on Friday afternoon. “Why do we spend $500 billion on the U.S. military every year if they aren’t ready and prepared to respond to an epic humanitarian disaster on U.S. soil?”

Blumenthal said he wants to go to Puerto Rico as soon as possible. “Puerto Rico needs to be rebuilt. We must do more and do better,” he said.

President Donald Trump declared the island a disaster zone the day the hurricane struck and has pledged to visit the island on Tuesday, but also drew flack for tweeting that the U.S. territory was going to have to deal with its “billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks” and “big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding.”

Economic strife had previously driven millions of Puerto Ricans to the mainland U.S. for years, with about 250,000 Connecticut residents having ties to Puerto Rico. Malloy cautioned on Friday that that number could “potentially double in the coming weeks and months. We need to get ready to do our part in helping the island recover … and helping individuals who may leave the island temporarily or permanently to get situated as well.”

On the island Friday, former Hartford resident Cinthia Cotto said in a text message that relief workers were beginning to reach the small town where she has been staying to care for her parents. She spotted military helicopters near Cidra, which is about an hour south of San Juan, on Thursday, but has been waiting in line for hours to get gas.

Carmen Vasquez, who has been caring for about two dozen elderly residents in a convalescent home, told her daughter, New Britain resident Innette Santos, that they are living with scarce resources.

“They lost power, they’re running out of food, and now they’re running out of medicine,” Santos said.

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