Monday, November 13, 2017

3 out of 3 Octogenarians tell Red Cross: Maria has no equal

Editor's note: Volunteer Winnie Romeril from Wheeler, Steuben County, is currently in Puerto Rico supporting the Maria relief efforts. Click here to learn more about the response and how you can help. 

Nestled high in the mountains of Barranquitas, Puerto Rico the old-timers in Barrio Barranca told
Red Cross volunteers they’ve never seen anything like Hurricane Maria in all their years. “Never have we taken hand outs,” Marcelino Rivera Guzman, 82, and his wife lament as they gratefully accept cases of water, food, peanut butter crackers and hugs. “We worked hard all our lives for everything we have, but now… well, what’s the point in even talking about it?” Red Cross workers, however, are all trained in psychological first aid and know that “talking about it” is precisely what will help lift the weary spirits of people coping with their seventh consecutive week without running water or electricity and scant access to services other United States citizens take for granted. “Maria ended everything- the entire harvest is gone, and all the wooden houses in the hills… gone.” Mr. Rivera’s eyes filled with tears as he lifted his gaze towards the steep mountains surrounding their home, where he often hiked with his bride of 60 years. “My grandmother lived to see 107 years,” Mr. Rivera said, “Will I live that long in these conditions? I wonder.”

“I remember Santa Clara when my daughter was just a little girl,” Carmen Lydia Montecina Rivera, 80, Mr. Rivera’s wife said, referring to the local name for Hurricane Betsy of 1958. “Santa Clara destroyed part of our home, but at least we could find food. Even Hugo wasn’t like this.” In 1989, Hurricane Hugo, like Hurricane Maria, wiped out banana and coffee crops. Monster hurricanes leave an indelible imprint. People here name them to mark the passage of time; it’s like knowing where you were on 9/11. “There are no bananas. No plantains,” Mrs. Rivera said. Plantains, related to bananas, need to be cooked; they are a Caribbean staple prepared in endless delicious ways. Fruit tress of every kind have been decimated on the island, impacting food availability and income sources for years to come. Banana family crops will take a year to recover. Locals say that mature avocado trees will likely take five years to bear fruit again, if they survived at all, since Hurricane Maria completely upended by many productive trees.

 “Ay, there is no comparison to what Maria did to Puerto Rico,” said Teresa Rosado Ortiz, 86, as her doting family gave her a chair in the shade near the relief distribution line. A Red Cross volunteer personally delivered a case of drinking water and boxes of food to her side. “Do you know how to prepare the militares, grandmother?” Winnie Romeril, a Red Cross volunteer from upstate NY asked her. “Militares” (militaries) are the local name for the 2000 calorie pre-packaged meals commonly eaten by soldiers. “Yes, I know how,” she said. “You put a little water in the plastic bag and put it in the cardboard box and then it gets hot. Thank you for these supplies. Thank you.” Red Cross volunteers continue to encounter Puerto Ricans who are eating these packages of food cold. Some groups don’t take the time to explain how to heat the main dish when dropping off the meals-ready-to-eat (MRE’s), and the instructions are only printed in English. In asking about her health, Mrs. Ortiz said, “I have a bad heart.” The Red Cross volunteer winked and assured her, “No. I’m sure you have a very good heart,” which earned her a laugh. 

In Puerto Rico, emergency relief efforts continue with a strong sense of urgency. Red Cross teams are in the field daily, distributing life-sustaining food and water, and providing home visits for health and mental health needs to island residents. The Red Cross team who helped the Riveras and Mrs. Ortiz on November 4th in Barranquitas, also served 1,582 people in the communities of Maná, Cañaboncito and Lajitas. Simultaneously that day, Red Cross teams delivered supplies to 17 other affected municipalities. Many hands truly made light work in giving out water and meals plus providing medical and legal assistance in Barranquitas, thanks to help from Michael Chavez Guerra and family, the Cintrón family (“El Familión”), the Fonalledas family, Pfizer (Michael Sweitzer), Chrysler (RAM Trucks of Puerto Rico and the RAM volunteers), Samaritan’s Purse and the volunteer doctors and nurses, the group of pro-bono lawyers, and all the volunteers from NY.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

“God kept me here for a reason.” Rochester Board Member supports her Puerto Rico home

“I wish I could be there.”

Under normal circumstances, Rose Mary Villarrubia Izzo would be in Puerto Rico right now, helping friends and family devastated by Hurricane Maria. However, this past year has been anything but normal for the long-time Red Cross volunteer and Greater Rochester Chapter Board member.

Rose Mary Villarrubia Izzo (r) with MGO Lorraine Clements
at the Greater Rochester Chapter Volunteer Salute in October
(Photo by: Tony Zollo, American Red Cross)
“I went to the doctor because I had a migraine,” she says. “The CT scan said I had a tiny aneurysm. The doctor sent me to a neurologist, who sent me to a neurosurgeon. They discovered I had a Size 6 aneurysm. They told me they start rupturing at Size 4, and they had to operate immediately.”

Rose Mary was hesitant to do the surgery. She was told she had only a 50/50 chance of surviving, and even if she did, she may not be able to walk or talk, and could lose her memory.

“I walked out of the doctor’s office in total devastation,” she says. “But they told me if I didn’t have the surgery, I had a 100% chance of dying.”

So, Rose Mary underwent the brain surgery, followed by several long, difficult months of recuperation. Despite being under doctor’s order to stay as stress-free as possible, Villarrubia Izzo, who has been a part of disaster relief operations including Hurricanes Hugo and George during her 32 years with the Red Cross, worried about her nieces and nephews in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, and her in-laws in Florida as Hurricane Irma made landfall. Then, Hurricane Maria absolutely devastated her birthplace, Puerto Rico, where much of her family still lives.

“Every time I looked at videos, my heart stopped,” she says. “I kept waiting to see if any family members would pop up in the news. One of my cousins found a fish on the top of their house! They lost everything.”

Rose Mary moved with her parents to Rochester when she was five years old, but spent summers and holidays with her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Puerto Rico, and her parents moved back after 18 years.

“Dad wanted to stay in Puerto Rico during this devastation and keep an eye on the house,” she said.  Her parents are in their 80s, and she knew that they couldn’t stay in an area with no power, potable water, or functional hospitals after Maria. Rose Mary worked to get them to join her in Rochester. After flights were cancelled six times, she arranged a relief flight, and they arrived safe two weeks ago and are now staying with her daughter. However, Rose Mary felt she needed to do more to help her homeland.

Rose Mary Villarrubia Izzo (3rd from left, red dress) was
instrumental in helping raise over $100,000 to support Maria
relief efforts during a telethon on September 25
“God kept me here for a reason,” says the deeply religious Villarrubia Izzo. After being convinced
that her medical condition made it impossible for her to go to Puerto Rico herself, Rose Mary began to use connections formed through 30 years with the Rochester City School District and the City of Rochester to help raise financial support for the Red Cross relief operations. She was instrumental in the raising of over $100,000 during a telethon on September 25, and helped ensure that proceeds from the City of Rochester’s ROC Relief event a week later also supported the Red Cross efforts. She represented the Red Cross during a concert at the Diplomat Banquet Center that raised over $5,000, and is currently working on another event with Country/Rock music group, “Stanby”, which will be held on November 26 at Three Heads Brewery, with all proceeds going to the Red Cross.

“I feel very proud that I’m capable health-wise to do it,” Rose Mary said. “I’m sad that I can’t go, but at least I can help from here. That’s why God kept me here. I know I can make a difference.”

Rose Mary started with the Red Cross 32 years ago through the Youth Leadership Program, which she is still involved with today. She says that the only way to truly understand all that she’s seen the Red Cross do for the community is to become a part of it yourself.

“If you can make a difference in someone’s life, you need to do it,” she says. “The purpose of helping pulled me out of a lot of depression, and I’m so happy to be here to do it.”

-Jay Bonafede, American Red Cross

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Generous Spirits: Residents Keep Watch for One Another Across Puerto Rico

Editor's note: Volunteer Winnie Romeril from Wheeler, Steuben County, is currently in Puerto Rico supporting the Maria relief efforts. Click here to learn more about the response and how you can help. 

“You can’t get your Red Cross truck up the road to El Salto, it’s too steep,” said the people waiting in line for supplies in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastating blow to Puerto Rico. One after another echoed concern for these neighbors who weren’t present for the relief distribution of water, tarps, flashlights, baby formula, hand sanitizer and other items.

“El Salto” consists of 10 remote homes on a hilltop, all made of wood. It’s hard to imagine homes more remote than this valley. San Lorenzo, Morovis, is a town of around 1700 people, nestled deep in the center of the island. Red Cross relief workers drove for hours up and down mostly one lane roads to get here. Toppled electrical poles and broken bamboo forests, recently cleared mudslides and swollen, muddy waterfalls threatened this route around every dizzying, hairpin turn. 

If El Salto homes were all made of wood, this is bad news because the hurricane’s path
Red Cross distribution site in Barrio San Lorenzo
went directly over this area. Additionally, “home made of wood” is practically code for “I have no roof” across Puerto Rico. By and large, cement homes held up better, unless a tree or electrical pole fell on it. Everyone suffered water damage regardless, but Red Cross teams in this area were particularly targeting families missing a roof over their heads.

It’s dusk when the team finishes helping the last families in line. Still, none of the families from El Salto have appeared. Many hours of difficult driving on unlit winding mountain roads to get to a main artery leading to San Juan await the team. Suddenly, a pickup pulls up alongside Red Cross volunteers clearing away boxes and plastic wrapping from around empty pallets of unloaded supplies. “Please take this to another community that needs it more,” the driver points to the back of the truck. 

Volunteer Rut Gonzalez, Distribution Team Lead
in Barrio San Lorenzo
“They received more baby formula than needed by all the mom’s in this town,” explains 20 year-old distribution team lead Rut Gonzalez. “The military dropped it off and now they want the Red Cross to give it to people who are worse off than they are. All the mom’s here with infants say they have enough to feed their babies right now.”

“I am so touched by their selflessness,” reflects Rut, who joined the Red Cross after Hurricane Maria shut down her university. Her uncle is a Red Cross zone leader and encouraged her to get involved. She is working 15-hour days, 6 days a week, riding in the front of a box truck with a Teamsters driver, delivering supplies to town after town. Several cars of Red Cross volunteers together with Teamsters and FDNY volunteers complete each of the 15-20 convoys that spread out across the island each day. The Red Cross has reached every one of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, but due to the limited supplies available until now on the island, more trucks and supplies are needed to adequately care for every affected community.

Just as the team is about to shut the door on the truck, a woman from El Salto is flagged down by San Lorenzo residents. At the Red Cross team’s request, and at the urging of her valley neighbors, she agrees to deliver 16’x20’ tarps to each of the families. Happy to have succeeded in helping Puerto Rican families people who needed help the most, the community members eagerly loaded the tarps into her car and disperse. As darkness falls in the mountain valley, and the Red Cross departs for San Juan, only the truck’s headlights— and the flashlights the team just handed out— light the night. 

-Story and photos by Winnie Romeril, American Red Cross

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

High Holidays with Hurricane Harvey in Houston

Editors note--This article was written by Red Cross volunteer Steven Schwartz of Buffalo for the Jewish Journal of WNY.

“Hurricane Harvey TX, DR397-18, hit Texas hard from Corpus Christi all the way up the coast to the Louisiana state line, and inward as far north as Austin in some areas. Flooding in some areas was as much as 8 feet, and in the Corpus Christi area, more structural damage than flooding occurred. “ (Sarah Perkins, Pittsford, NY,  Red Cross Disaster Assessment Lead)

When Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 Storm in Texas early in August, 2017, over one-half million residents were evacuated and 34,000 stayed in 240 Red Cross and partner shelters.  On September 22, I deployed to Texas, joining 160 Red Cross volunteers from Western & Central New York.

I have been a Red Cross volunteer for over seven years, during which time I have deployed to tornadoes in Alabama, storms in Connecticut, wildfires in Northern California, Superstorm Sandy in NY, Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina and “Snowvember” here at home. These efforts literally fulfill the commandment of “Tikkun Olam”, repairing the world. 

A child's thank you letter to the Red Cross in Houston
In Houston, I served as the Lead in Staff & Volunteer Relations, helping to anticipate and resolve problems between and among volunteers.  With thousands of volunteers traveling to a place most had never been, doing things they might not have done, with people they didn’t know, and under difficult circumstances, the major problems were relatively few.  Volunteers worked 12-14 hour days, 7-10 days in a row without a day off.  Many lived in staff shelters.  Despite these hardships and stresses, quality services were delivered and local residents responded gratefully, both personally and in cards and letters.

I had wanted to attend Yom Kippur services while in Houston.  I met Diane Levine, Red Cross Spiritual Care Lead on the disaster, who referred me to Rabbi Steve Morgen from Congregation Beth Yeshurun, the largest Conservative synagogue in the U.S.  He explained that the synagogue had been completely flooded, and although Torah scrolls and other books and materials had been saved, the building was totally unusable.  Joel Osteen had then offered his Lakewood Church to Beth Yeshurun for their High Holiday services.

Jai Lev Dravich (l) and Steven Schwartz at Kol Nidre Services
Jai Lev Dravich, from Santa Cruz, CA, with whom I had worked during Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina, and I attended this remarkable Kol Nidre service.  The huge arena (formerly a pro-hockey stadium) seated thousands of worshippers.  Images of the synagogue’s beautiful tapestries were projected on the sides and back of the bimah.  This was also Rabbi David Rosen’s last Kol Nidre service before his retirement after 22 years as Senior Rabbi.  After his sermon, in an emotional tribute, he was lauded for his wonderful work, and it was announced that the new entrance to the rebuilt synagogue would be dedicated in his honor.  His inspirational words engaged the entire congregation in the efforts to reclaim the synagogue from the flood waters as a physical act of Teshuva, the returning of Beth Yeshurun on Beechnut Street to the congregation.  (To view the devastation and to help, see the website: ).  We returned to our duties knowing we had witnessed an historical event.
Tapestry Projection Congregation Beth Yeshurun

As of mid-October, the Red Cross had provided over $200 million in direct cash assistance to a half million households in Texas alone. Millions of meals, snacks and relief items were delivered and over 100,000 health and mental health services were provided. Six weeks from landfall, only two Red Cross shelters remained open, serving 700 residents. Over 1000 Red Cross disaster volunteers remained in Texas at that time.  Additional efforts for Harvey extended into Louisiana.

Clean up supplies in a Houston warehouse to be distributed to
help families recovering after Hurricane Harvey
Overall, 16,000 Red Cross volunteers opened shelters ineight states, Puerto Rico and the U. S. Virgin Islands in response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate.  They were joined by over 6,000 spontaneous volunteers.  Your voluntary donations supported these efforts.  The average cost of deploying a volunteer is $1650, and my friends and family raised nearly that amount. 

To respond to local disasters, the Federation helped to establish the Buffalo Jewish Service Corps (BJSC).  Over 70 members of the Buffalo Jewish community have received training in preparedness, psychological first aid and sheltering in preparation of a local response.  The last training also included members of the local Muslim community.  If you are interested in being a part of BJSC,  please contact Steven Schwartz (, or  for more information about or becoming a Red Cross volunteer, visit