WNPR

One Woman's Quest To Help With Food And Family In Puerto Rico

Oct 5, 2017

Veronica Montalvo was born in Willimantic and has lived in Hartford, Middletown, Waterbury -- and, now, San Juan. She moved there earlier this year. And she weathered Hurricane Maria in her 300-year-old apartment building. She says the hours of howling winds were unbearable. The walls of her apartment were so wet they looked like they were crying. Part of her ceiling caved in.

And now, the aftermath.

Power is limited, communication is limited, food is limited. And so is Montalvo’s patience. She’s got pata caliente, she said. Hot foot. It’s that feeling that she’s got to get out and do something.

“You know, one day I just decided to take a trip down south to check on our relatives that I have that are also from Connecticut that no one had heard from,” she said earlier this week.

Her cell reception wasn’t great, and getting a signal isn’t easy. It’s either on the roof of her building, or on the side of the expressway. That’s where she was when she spoke with WNPR.

“I packed my car up with things and as much water as I could buy, really, in case my family needed it,” Montalvo said. “The truth is, by the time I got to my family, I had already given everything away.”

That’s because she had gotten lost. So she had to stop and ask directions from people who hadn’t had much to eat or drink. And that was the beginning.

“I took it upon myself to bring a bag of groceries to a friend, and then a friend and a family member,” she said. “And then I realized that I could do more.”

So she visited more grocery stores to buy food, water, and toiletries. Then she’d get in her car and drive as far as she safely could to help whomever she could. But that’s not all. Using her cellphone, she also recorded short clips of the people she’d met. Each time she gets back to San Juan and a cell signal, she posts what she can online. It’s people identifying themselves, saying where they live, and letting folks know they’re okay.

On one of her drives, she went looking for Milly Rodriguez -- the aunt of her best friend Karla.

“Milly happens to be an aunt of one of my best friends in Waterbury and she had asked me to try and find her,” Montalvo said. “And I was really moved by her and her sons, her strength, her spirit.”

After the storm passed, Puerto Rico was under a nighttime curfew. That, too, tried Montalvo’s patience -- and that of her neighbors in San Juan.

“You’re just in solitude. There’s not a lot going on. You have no communication. Again, you get a little stir crazy,” Montalvo said. “So, in San Juan, that was one of the plazas nearest my apartment, they scheduled like a 10-day curfew celebration, I guess you could call it. And they had this band come out -- small, you know -- and basically we all celebrated.”

“My heart is warm and I’m prouder and prouder to be Puerto Rican,” she said. I’m watching people help each other from the very beginning. Wring out towels. Sweep out water. Everywhere you go it’s people, communities helping each other. Neighborhoods helping each other. It’s just a beautiful thing. I think it resonates with our community -- the strength, and the fortitude, and the spirit.”

This story is part of “The Island Next Door,” WNPR’s reporting project about Puerto Rico and Connecticut after Hurricane Maria.