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School Bus Company In Waterbury Doing Heavy Lifting For Puerto Rican Relief

Oct 4, 2017

The leveling of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria is personal to the employees of Durham School Services. More than half of them are Puerto Rican. The normal driving schedule at the school bus company in Waterbury is 6:00 am to 9:00 am and then again from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. But it’s what they do in-between and after work that is less about the routine and more about helping out back at home.

Ruben Zapata was surrounded by school buses and pallets full of bottled water, diapers, and other supplies. They unloaded a bunch already, but they still have 11 buses to go.  For them, it’s hard to keep up.

“It’s just snow-balled on us,” Zapata said. “But we’re working on the logistics.”

This is personal for Zapata.  His parents were born in Puerto Rico, and he’s got a 28-year-old niece with four kids on the island.  He hasn’t heard from her since the storm.

So he tried helping. But the challenge now is getting the supplies he and his coworkers have gathered to the island.  A first stop may well be Roberto Clemente State Park, a massive area next to the Harlem River in the Bronx that is a drop-off site for the Empire State Relief and Recovery Effort for Puerto Rico.

“They’ll get it down there,” Zapata said. “They’ll store it for us. It’ll be marked for Puerto Rico to go to Puerto Rico.”

But even that’s not easy -- because getting the supplies to the Bronx means using more than the school buses they have. So Ruben’s co-worker Lara Hobbs hooked up with a truck company and scored a rig with a 53-foot trailer. They’ve already helped her out with one load. That went to New Jersey and will eventually be shipped to Puerto Rico.

“[The] past two weeks we’ve been zombies because a lot of people have been here until 10:30-11 o’clock at night—packaging, moving, unloading,” Hobbs said.

And she said that, even though she has no direct ties to the island, she’s still personally affected because of what her coworkers are going through.

“Well—I’m not Puerto Rican but this is my family,” Hobbs said. “This is what I come to work for every day.”

The two of them figured they’ve got four more tractor-trailer loads to go and are looking for another truck to help them.  But they haven’t lost hope.

“Whenever it gets there, it’s going to get there,” Zapata said. “They are getting supplies as we speak.”

The workers at Durham have partnered with the Hispanic Coalition of Greater Waterbury--a group led by Alderman Victor Lopez Jr. that has been instrumental in moving supply out of the Durham office building and on a path to Puerto Rico.

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