Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Businesses in Puerto Rico take relief efforts into their own hands

By on October 11, 2017

Volunteers from Brands of Puerto Rico and CompraFresca unload supplies. (Courtesy of Brands of Puerto Rico)

SAN JUAN – As the days give way to weeks since Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane María, a collective complaint, expressed particularly on social media, is that government efforts for getting supplies to isolated communities outside the metropolitan area have been haphazard at best and negligent at worst. Impassable roads seem intersected by bureaucracy and local partisan quibbling, creating both physical and logistical obstacles for aid to reach those who need it most.

Private businesses, both large and small, as well as independent entrepreneurs, have been organizing to actually reach those people who have yet to see someone from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or a municipal or central government representative in their community. They have pooled resources, used their contacts, created partnerships or simply loaded up cars and SUVs and headed for the mountains, where communities are cut off and food and water supplies are dwindling, if not already tapped out.

An example of one of these efforts on the larger end of the scale is Bacardi. The rum manufacturer is a founding member of Unidos por Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico first lady’s initiative with the private sector to bring aid to those affected by María, and has pledged $2 million for relief efforts.

From that alliance came two Emergency Stop & Go centers—in Cataño, where the distillery’s facilities are located, and later in San Juan, on Roosevelt Avenue, for people to pick up water, food and supplies—some donated by Bacardi distributor Puerto Rico Supplies—or simply take a break from the crisis, charge cell phones, connect to the internet, listen to music or watch a movie.

Quickly they realized more areas needed help and within 48 hours they organized a new project called Bacardi Contigo (Bacardi With You). Starting this week, employees and volunteers are visiting 10 of the more neglected municipalities such as Morovis, Loíza, Añasco, Hormigueros and Mayagüez, Bacardi distributor Manager Hilda Rodríguez said.

Doctors arrive in Puerto Rico to volunteer in rural areas

“With these caravans we want to bring three things to these communities. First, water. We have trucks that can transport 22,000 liters and people can come fill up containers or their cistern. Second, hot food. We’ve made alliances [through food blog La Mafia, which is documenting Bacardi’s efforts] with several chefs to cook hot meals that we can distribute to the communities we visit. And third, medical services, which we are providing thanks to a partnership with MMM [Healthcare]. They have created a mobile clinic,” Rodríguez told Caribbean Business, adding that entertainment is also provided for children and families.

Currently, Bacardi is looking to form partnerships with other brands to expand what it can offer at the towns visited.

Another spirits giant, Pernod Ricard, is also organizing relief efforts through its brand ambassador on the island, Alexandra Rivera. It will be purchasing the equivalent of 1,500 meals from local restaurants, including La Jaquita Baya, La Alcapurria Quemá, Dorotea, and New York-based Mofon-Go, whose chef and founder, Manolo López, will travel to the island. These meals will then be distributed in Barranquitas, Aguada, Humacao and Loíza at the end of October and beginning of November.

“What we want as a company is to support our clients [restaurants that serve Pernod Ricard products]. Now is not the time to promote buying alcohol, so [Pernod Ricard is] channeling funds to buy food and then taking that food to communities,” Rivera explained. It will be supported by its local distributors, V. Suárez, B. Fernández and Ballester Hermanos to reach the communities.

Rivera is also organizing fundraising events to support bartenders who are currently unemployed in the aftermath of the hurricane and to be able to reach more municipalities down the line.

Other companies have gone the donation route, such as Chili’s Puerto Rico, which gave $20,000 worth of food to Chef José Andrés’ initiative, World Central Kitchen (WCK) and Chefs for Puerto Rico, which has distributed about 100,000 meals to communities, nursing homes, hospitals and other entities, according to WCK.

Garnier, meanwhile, is donating hair products to different initiatives working directly with communities. Maybelline has set up a collection and distribution center in Bayamón. And Redken has set up a beauty salon at L’Oréal headquarters for unemployed stylists to bring their customers.

The Home Depot Foundation has pledged $500,000 to María relief efforts and some of its executives are on the island assessing where to channel resources. It is working with such groups as the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Convoy of Hope, Operation Blessing and Team Rubicon, as well as FEMA and the local government to assess the needs on the island, said Matthew Harrigan of  Home Depot’s public relations department.

On a smaller scale, Brands of Puerto Rico, which distributes local products stateside, began visiting different towns every weekend, dropping off water, food and other supplies with representatives of some of the brands it works with as well as  schools, community centers, nonprofits and town halls.

A community receives aid from Brands of Puerto Rico and CompraFresca. (Courtesy Brands of Puerto Rico)

Brands of Puerto Rico joined forces with another small business, CompraFresca, a grocery delivery service in the metro area, loaded up a van and went out to Aguada, Ponce and Lares. “Out there, they haven’t heard anything from the government. They would say, ‘Weren’t Trump and the military coming?’” Alan Taveras, co-founder of Brands of Puerto Rico, said.

When driving on the western side of the island, they came across roads blocked by landslides, farms destroyed and dead animals. “To them it was totally surreal to see a van with the CompraFresca logo coming into their towns,” he added.

They recently partnered with the nonprofit Waves for Water, which donated water filters to be  distributed. Fundraising has exceeded $10,000 in only two weeks.

Taveras acknowledged that “this isn’t going to save Puerto Rico, but we want people to get motivated and that this citizen initiative be replicated in the communities.”

Stories like these keep cropping up almost daily across the island, and that’s without even looking at the nonprofit sector. Large companies channel their connections and dollars to independent initiatives or create their own. Startups and small businesses team up to distribute what matters most right now: food and water. Private initiatives are letting these communities outside the metro area know they haven’t been forgotten.

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