Impact of Hurricane Maria being felt locally

Esperanza in Vieques before Hurricane Maria

Wanda (Castro) Zawadzki lived in Puerto Rico and witnessed Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Georges in 1998.

Though she was young, the now-Dunkirk resident remembers the horrifying experiences.

Zawadzki has been paying close attention to the news the last few days, anxiously awaiting word from her relatives in Humacao and Caguas to learn of their safety. Zawadzki has six sisters, three aunts, two uncles and cousins living in Puerto Rico.

Fortunately, that phone call came Thursday afternoon as her uncle reported they were safe and staying at the local hospital.

“We have been trying to reach all the landlines and cell phone number we have,” Zawadzki said. “On the landlines, we were getting busy signals.”Zawadzki has watched her native island withstand several hurricanes over the years, and her relatives come away unscathed, Hurricane Maria just feels different.

“After Irma, I was in constant communication with my relatives,” Zawadzki said. “There was no loss of communication. This is the first time there is one strong enough to destroy the communication systems. This hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4. The last time Puerto Rico was hit by a hurricane of comparable strength I believe was in 1932 — Hurricane San Ciprian.”

With the entire island without electricity, Zawadzki said it could be months before power is restored. When Hurricane Georges struck in 1989, Humacao was without power for two months and without water for one month.

“We relied on helping each other more than anything else,” Zawadzki recalled. “For Georges none of my family members suffered structural damages to their properties, since they’re not directly located on the coast and they’re made of solid concrete with rebar support. It was just an adjustment to eat everything out of a can and soon having a piece of chicken became a luxury that not too many people could afford.

“The power grid wasn’t very stable before Irma hit,” Zawadzki continued. “Some days you would lose power just because something simply malfunctioned since the systems are outdated. The economic crisis in Puerto Rico was forcing a lot of Puerto Ricans to leave their homes for a new life in the US — typically New York and Florida. Now with the destruction this has caused, I wouldn’t be surprised if people start to leave simply because they cannot afford to rebuild. It will be months before they have power and running water.”

Puerto Rico holds a place in the hearts of many in Dunkirk. Those connections are stirring some at city hall to initiate relief efforts locally.

Hector Rosas, Dunkirk festivals and special events coordinator, is raising funds in collaboration with the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York in Buffalo and the American Red Cross. Monetary donations are being accepted at the Development Office on the second floor of the Stearns Building, 338 Central Ave. Inquiries can be directed to or 366-0452.

Clerk Edwin Ramos is coordinating a water collection for hurricane victims.

“What we need for these people is water. It’s the first thing they’re going to need because normally a lot of their water comes from a desalination process, which is not possible without electricity,” he explained. “We are accepting some toiletries and shelf-stable food, but water is going to be the number one thing. I think that will be the biggest help we can be to them.”

The warehouse at the corner of Lake Shore Drive and Washington Avenue has been offered up again for the city’s hurricane relief efforts by owners Alan Shaw and Jerry Bertges. The warehouse will be open for donations of water and some toiletries and canned food from 3 to 7 p.m. for the next two weeks.

Those who wish to volunteer can show up at the warehouse at 3 p.m. to sign up, stop by the clerk’s office in city hall or call 366-0452.

Ramos, his wife and Rosas, along with his brothers Robert and Mayor Willie Rosas, are among the many who have not heard from their relatives on the island.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” Ramos said. “My wife’s brother, Hector Ivan Acevedo, and his wife Patricia live in Maunabo. They’re right on the ocean on the southeast coast and my wife is worried sick. There’s no way to get communication. We heard (Thursday) morning from the secretary of state that there were no casualties on the island, now I’ve just been told the Weather Channel is reporting 15 dead and 20 missing just in San Juan. So, I’m really worried now because there’s no communication. We were feeling pretty good this morning, but now I’m sure my wife has heard the news because the Weather Channel has been on 24 hours a day at our house.”

Rosas said his mother lives on the far side of the island from where the storm hit, but he hasn’t heard an update since the power and phone lines went down.

“I am very concerned,” he said, adding he has been using the Zello app to get updates.

Zello is a free app that acts like a walkie-talkie radio and was popular in connecting those seeking help with rescue organizations during hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Now, Rosas said he is able to ask for updates by town and receive a response.

Ramos said there are three numbers to call to have someone check on your relative in Puerto Rico: 202-778-0710, 787-777-0940 and 877-976-2400.