Puerto Rico still needs help

A friend of mine threw an idea at us the other day. For her upcoming milestone birthday, she would like to combine her celebration with a chance to do some good in the world. Her hope is to take enough people with her to join one of the volunteer efforts in Puerto Rico, where officials are just now admitting 1,427 died as a result of Hurricane Maria nearly a year ago. Previous official reports had been 64.

Many in that commonwealth (they are United States citizens) are still without electricity. Reconstruction efforts are painfully slow, if they are happening at all. Some neighborhoods remain devastated. They still need a LOT of help.

And it is tempting to dismiss their struggles. Why can’t they get it together? That kind of thing wouldn’t happen here on the mainland.

Well … actually … right here in Almost Heaven, the National Guard is having a heck of a time sorting through the mess made when other branches of government were asked to help victims of flooding rebuild their lives.

Just to be clear: That particular round of flooding happened more than two years ago.

When the National Guard took over RISE WV, it was because the program had been so horribly mismanaged by the state Commerce Department that, once lawmakers caught wind of it, multiple employees resigned and former Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher stepped down.

Now, Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, is in charge, and making some progress. But he is still stuck waiting for the wheels of government to turn in his favor.

“It sounds like a simple thing, but I’m dealing with the state and federal bureaucracy, so it takes a while to get things done,” he said.

That is shameful.

Though the National Guard has made progress, there are still 435 cases open, in the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster case management system. According to Hoyer, 163 of those require reconstruction, 157 require rehabilitating existing homes, 109 are mobile home replacements … and 6 are, believe it or not, still pending damage assessment.

Again, this is more than two years after the events that tore apart those communities. There have been other disastrous floods since then, in West Virginia.

There are still entire communities — some of them very close to home — suffering from continued problems with their electricity and sewage/water systems.

As Hoyer put it, “We have lots of work to do and lots of stuff to keep moving on.”

Indeed. And, by the way, the folks to whom my friend tossed out her idea have done and are still doing what they can here in West Virginia, I assure you.

But when you see those national news stories about the challenges faced by Puerto Ricans, check yourself before you look down your nose at the folks living on that little Caribbean U.S. territory and think “that couldn’t happen here.”

It can. It IS happening here. Right here.

Give Hoyer and his team a great deal of credit, they seem to be making some headway.

“A lot of people have put blood, sweat and tears, and a lot of effort making sure people were getting cared for,” Hoyer said.

Thank goodness. It is disgraceful that the victims of flooding had to wait this long for someone like Hoyer — and those under his command — to have that basic understanding. This is about making sure people are getting cared for.

That, and a determination to do the job as quickly and effectively as possible, were all we needed. It’s what the people in Puerto Rico need right now, too.

Maybe, as the men and women in Washington, D.C., try to figure out how best to handle aid to the recovery effort in Puerto Rico, members of the West Virginia delegation can tell them, “Hey, we know a guy …”

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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