Local Puerto Ricans focus on helping as they await word from loved ones

Many in Jacksonville collecting supplies to send to hurricane victims

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Several Jacksonville-area groups are pulling together to send much-needed aid to Puerto Rico, just days after the island was devastated by powerful Hurricane Maria.

Neighborhoods in Puerto Rico were flattened, and at least six people have been reported dead. Officials said it could take four to six months to restore power.

The U.S. sent National Guard members from several states and personnel with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with the recovery, but much of the island is in ruins.

According to the Census Bureau, about 25,000 Puerto Ricans live in Jacksonville.

Many residents with ties to the island, including every worker at El Taino restaurant on University Boulevard, are collecting supplies to ship to the devastated area.

Several of those restaurant workers said they have loved ones they haven't been able to contact since the hurricane ripped across Puerto Rico.

They said they're worried, and they're not wasting any time sending help to the crippled island.

“It has been four days, and I haven't heard anything from them -- four days. (It's) very deep emotion that I got,” said Julian Buonomo, the restaurant's owner.

Buonomo said bringing Latin flavor to Jacksonville is his passion, but he's finding it hard to focus on his business, because his mind is stuck on his former home.

“This was my dream, and here it is. I am bringing my culture to the United States,” Buonomo said. “(But) I got all my family over there. I got my mom over there; my dad.”

After the island was smacked by Hurricane Maria, 3.4 million people remain without power and essential supplies. 

Buonomo said he's worried for his elderly parents.

“I just want to hear their voice. You know?” he said.

Even without answers, he’s stepping up to support the U.S. territory.

“We're going to try to do everything we can to help everybody,” Buonomo said.

That includes organizing a drive to get the supplies Puerto Ricans need. He’s joining with local churches and nonprofits to collect food, water, batteries, baby supplies and toiletries.

FEMA administrator William Long said emergency teams are working hard to get the victims what they need.

“Today is about stabilizing the situation,” Long said. “We already do have a pretty solid presence on the island, but we've got a long way to go. We are trying to do it at the seaport, opening and utilizing the ports to be able to get basically life-saving and life-sustaining commodities in place.”

Aid from the River City could be on its way soon, if residents step up to help. Buonomo's group plans to fill a container and ship it in the next few weeks.

“Everybody put a little this, a little that, a little bottle of water, a little bag of rice,” Buonomo said.
Anyone who wants to help can drop donations at El Taino Bar and Restaurant at 4347 University Blvd. S. in Jacksonville. For more information, call 904-374-1150.

The owners and employees at the restaurant said any contribution is appreciated.

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