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Oct 3, 2017 2:06 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

East End Residents With Ties To Puerto Rico, Other Islands Talk About Hurricane Destruction

Oct 3, 2017 2:06 PM

Patrick and Marguerite Wetzel’s home in Rincon, Puerto Rico, sits high atop a hill across the street from Maria’s Beach, one of the most popular surf spots in town.

It’s the perfect piece of real estate for an avid surfer like Mr. Wetzel, who bids good-bye to his hometown of Montauk every fall and settles into the town on the westernmost point of the island for the winter. The location at the top of the steep hill allows Mr. Wetzel and a few other homeowners in the spot to check the surf without leaving their yard.

It also made the home particularly vulnerable to damage from Hurricane Maria last month. Five days after the hurricane devastated the island, Mr. Wetzel finally heard from his caretaker, who had made it to the house three days after the storm to find the front doors blown in and blasted all the way into the kitchen at the back end of the house. Leaves, sticks and bugs were plastered to the ceiling and walls, and the house’s water system had sustained damage as well.Mr. Wetzel called it “small potatoes,” pointing out the more significant and devastating structural damage others had sustained. Rincon was spared from the worst Maria had to offer, the damage less significant than what people living on the northern and eastern areas of the island have been dealing with, but the sleepy surfing town is feeling the ripple effects of the storm’s destruction. Food, fuel, water and cash shortages, though not as extreme as in other areas, are an issue, and residents are facing difficulties, to varying degrees, procuring those essentials.

Mr. and Ms. Wetzel are one of many East End families who also call Rincon home. There is a strong connection between Rincon and Montauk, in particular, and the communities are about as closely connected as two towns separated by more than a three-hour plane ride can be. Surfing is the tie that binds them.

Mr. Wetzel and other part-time Puerto Rico residents spoke this week about the Maria’s impact on the island, and expressed similar concerns. They largely considered any damage to their own homes and properties as an afterthought, more concerned with their native Puerto Rican friends, the impending humanitarian and economic crisis that threatens to get worse before it improves, and the frustration of watching, from thousands of miles away, as a place they love suffers.

“It’s sad, it’s just so sad,” Mr. Wetzel said. “It’s just a feeling of helplessness. Just knowing that a lot of the people I know are just hurting.”

Mr. Wetzel said earlier this week that he wasn’t sure when he’d make it down to Rincon. Typically, he and his wife head there in the middle of November, when he shuts down his pool company for the winter. They often make a visit back to Montauk around Christmas to see their children and grandchildren, and then return to Rincon and stay through March. Like other Montauk friends with homes in the area, Mr. Wetzel is itching to go, and said that hasn’t changed despite the prospect of a winter without access to electricity and other usual amenities.

“We’re all anxious to see what’s going on with our property, but to me it’s also my town,” he said. “I just want to see if there’s anything I can do to help. I know I’ll be down there [this winter] without a doubt. If it’s that difficult, maybe I’d come home I guess, but I think I’d rather tough it out there.”

Like the Wetzels, John and Kathy McGeehan are Montauk residents who also call Rincon home, and in recent years they have spent more time there than on Long Island. When he speaks of Maria and its impact on Puerto Rico, Mr. McGeehan does not dwell for long on his own particular interests and property (he and his wife also own and operate a spinning exercise business in the town). His thoughts quickly go to the most vulnerable people.

“There are northerners with property down there, but the minute you go up in the hills, drive 10 minutes up, my God, you’ve got these little communities and tiny groupings of houses that I’m sure no one has gotten to yet.”

Mr. McGeehan pointed out that Puerto Rico, in comparison to other Caribbean islands hit by hurricanes, presents a logistical challenge because of its hilly and mountainous topography, and also simply because of its size.

“We’ve traveled the interior, and on a good day it’s difficult getting up some of those roads,” he said. “I can’t even imagine the dire situation that’s going on in some of those towns. I mean, no one can at this point. This just completely blew everything away, and I have no idea how they will restore it.”

Concerned Montauk and other East End residents can’t make it down to Rincon now, but they’re doing their best to provide support and gather resources to help speed the recovery. Montauk resident Paulette Davis, who owns a home and several businesses in Rincon, helped Surf Lodge owner Jayma Cardoso quickly put together a fundraiser at the Montauk hotspot last Saturday night, dubbed “Montauk Stands With Puerto Rico,” which Ms. Davis said raised $10,000. The money will be distributed by Surf For Life, a nonprofit that helped distribute aid during Hurricane Sandy. In addition, East End Cares will be holding a fundraiser on October 15 at Sole East in Montauk to support Team Rubicon’s disaster response efforts.

Ms. Davis and her children have been going to Rincon for more than 20 years. She and her son, Tyler, own the popular Puntas Bakery and Happy Bowls. Her daughter Quincy, 22, learned to surf in Rincon and is now a professional surfer. They typically spend from November to May in the town. Ms. Davis spoke about the dire situation and what she’s heard from people in Rincon, but said it isn’t all negative.

“People are really trying to help each other out,” she said. “I haven’t heard too much desperation. They’re all really trying to band together.”

Like the Davis family, the Engstrom family, also of Montauk, has been going to Puerto Rico for decades. Alexis Engstrom, 25, is working with her friend Hailey Gmora, to raise money for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico through a fundraising page, youcaring.com/manoamano. The name “mano a mano,” which means, “hand to hand” was created, she said, because their primary goal is to put cash and supplies into the hands of full-time Rincon residents in need. Ms. Engstrom said she’s hoping to make it down to Puerto Rico this month or in early November armed with supplies to deliver to people. Rincon is as much a home to her as Montauk, she said, as she learned to surf there alongside her twin sister, Ariel, and older brother, Leif.

While most East Enders with ties to Rincon have been watching the destruction from afar, at least one experienced it firsthand. Sag Harbor resident Bob Persan has been in Rincon since before Irma struck, and his wife, Jessica Persan, is cautiously optimistic that they will be reunited soon. It was a stressful few days after the hurricane for Ms. Persan, who was waiting to hear from her husband. He finally connected with her on a 30-second call from a satellite phone several days after to let her know he was OK, and she’s only had intermittent contact with him since. Ms. Persan booked a short flight for her husband from nearby Mayaguez to San Juan on Saturday, and was hoping from there he’d fly home on another flight she booked from San Juan. She said he told her it’s “pretty dire,” and added that he had just $90 cash to make it from last Monday to Saturday.

Of course Puerto Rico isn’t the only island that was ravaged by Irma and Maria, and several other East Enders have connections to other parts of the Caribbean. Montauk residents Sally Nielsen and her husband, Ron Glogg, own a home on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, in the Coral Bay area. She said earlier this week that they sustained minimal damage to their home, but spoke about the emotional toll of the storm and the ripple effects on their friends. Ms. Nielsen and Mr. Glogg bought their home in late 2001, and planned to retire there. She said she was glued to her computer as Irma bore down on the island, and didn’t hear much news about her home and her friends until a week later, but she said her home wasn’t her primary concern.

“We were more worried about our friends,” she said. “We hadn’t heard from them, so we just assumed the worst.”

When Ms. Nielsen finally heard from the management firm that takes care of their house, they told her that two of the maintenance workers—one of whom lost his home—were forced to spend the night in the pump room in the basement of a house they care for after the winds ripped off the roof.

“He was terrified,” Ms. Nielsen said. “He said there was this great pressure, that gave him a headache and made his ears pop. He said the noise was just terrifying.”

Ms. Nielsen said she’s heard that the situation has improved in terms of relief efforts after what was a difficult first week post-storm. She spoke about hearing about local restaurants there that were donating meals to residents, made with food that people had brought there from their freezers, which could no longer keep the food frozen without electricity.

“Coral Bay is kind of like Montauk,” she said. “When things go bad, the citizens really band together.”

Ms. Nielsen and Mr. Glogg recently opened their Montauk home to a friend from St. John, who flew north just before the hurricane hit but left behind her husband, who wanted to stay and secure their property. He survived, but knowing what he’s going through and being away from him took its toll on her, Ms. Nielsen said.

“It’s been really painful watching our friends suffer and hearing what they’re going through,” she said. “When our friend came up to see us, she was so traumatized. She went from being OK one minute to breaking down the next.”

Mr. Glogg was scheduled to fly to St. John this week, along with several other friends who have homes there. They were set to bring supplies and pitch in where they could to help in the relief efforts.

Mr. McGeehan is currently wrestling with whether or not to get on the flight he’s booked to Puerto Rico on Wednesday, October 11—assuming it isn’t canceled. He said he’s heard from some people that traveling to Puerto Rico now is ill-advised, because opportunities to help are still limited, and another person there is just another person competing for precious resources. When it will be advisable to travel there remains to be seen.

“It’s a game-changer, not only for this winter but God knows how long,” Mr. McGeehan said. “Things are not going to be business as usual. But Kath and I try to check ourselves, because we are thinking, OK, we’ve sustained damage but on the bigger picture, this island is in so much trouble as a people, and they’re American citizens. I hope what is being done is being done efficiently. The whole northern Caribbean, all those islands, they’ve been totally wiped off the map. And no one talks about northern Cuba, which got absolutely slammed. It’s just horrific.”

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Donny Dumpo sets the bar lower and lower every day. His comments in Puerto Rico further illustrate how he has no business being in public office. He is a terrible human being.
By johnj (695), Westhampton on Oct 4, 17 12:25 PM
3 members liked this comment
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By toes in the water (544), southampton on Oct 6, 17 7:58 AM
1 member liked this comment
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