Elisa Cruz is poised, despite the pressure her family is under. She holds back tears as she describes a cousin who has been hospitalized in Caguas for a kidney infection, “and they don’t have all the things they need.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The extent of the devastation in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria last week (9-20-17) has made it difficult for the US government to distribute relief supplies. Many in the island commonwealth are relying on family members in the continental US for critical help.

In Sitka, two residents — both of whom work at the local hospital — are answering that call.

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Juan Maldonado (l.) works on the housekeeping nightshift at Sitka Community Hospital. Like Cruz, he’s got family in Caguas who are running short of basic necessesities. (SCH photo/Colleen Dahlquist)

Elisa Cruz and Juan Maldonado are from Caguas, Puerto Rico, a city of 143,000 people about a half-hour south of San Juan.

Or rather, it was about a half-hour south of San Juan, when you could drive between them.

Roads and highways are nearly useless, and fuel is short. Elisa Cruz’s mother can’t call for help, but she can text.

“Right now she just gave me an update that she is running out of gas to move around, and she just went to a clinic to get treatment for some of her issues, and it’s crowded. There are a lot of people.”

Cruz’s mother is a former nurse whose house survived the hurricane. Cruz says damage to the roads and a shortage of trucks and drivers are affecting the delivery of relief supplies.

They’re having to improvise some of the basics.

“My brother’s wife works in a supermarket and she can get a gallon of water every day. But my brother is giving one to my mom one day, one to my grandma the other day, and one for him. And that’s how they are doing it.”

Cruz’s mother and brother, Josue, are doing what they can to take care of their neighbors in Caguas, but it’s a struggle with limited access to supplies. To help out, Cruz’s other brother, Neftali, will be flying from his home in Florida to Puerto Rico next Monday (10-2-17) with as much as he can carry — most of it purchased by Cruz and her sister in Georgia.

“He will pack everything for what they are needing right now. All his suitcases. He’s putting stuff that we are sending him. I’m buying things online and sending it to his house right now. In Florida, things are sold out. People are doing the same thing.”

It’s a neighborhood airlift, family-to-family. Cruz’s colleague at Sitka Community Hospital, Juan Maldonado, is doing the same thing for his neighborhood in Caguas.

NPR is reporting that although container vans of supplies are arriving in San Juan, they’re not getting out. Cruz hopes her brothers Neftali and Josue can do — on a small scale — what governments have not.

In addition to hitting online shopping, Cruz is also scouring stores close by to Netfali’s home for last-minute items that could make a huge difference as Puerto Rico recovers.

“I just had an idea to buy a filter to attach to the faucet for my mom to supply more water to people around her. So I found one at a WalMart close to him. So he’s going to be able to pick it up there before he leaves.”

Cruz works in the high-tech world of Health Information Management at the hospital, but her fundraising approach old school: A coffee can outside her office on the hospital’s lower level. Her colleague Doug Osborne says hospital employees are making sure it’s not empty, but other Sitkans are welcome to join.

“What we want to do is if somebody’s interested in helping the people in Puerto Rico, to come to the hospital and contribute with the hospital employees. Because we want to get as much money as possible because we want to get as much supplies and relief as possible.”

Because transportation to and from Puerto Rico is unreliable, Cruz says her brother Neftali is loading up all he can now. It’s a one-way trip to San Juan, and then on to Caguas. She says, “He doesn’t have a date to return.”