The 10th-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, Maria dealt a wallop punch. Nearly a month afterward, about 90 percent of the island remains without power, and water service has been restored to less than 60 percent of the population. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed and entire communities left completely isolated, without food and water, according to reports by the Puerto Rican government.
The tragedy has hit Vazquez – head coach for the Hornets baseball team at Alabama State University (ASU) in Montgomery – harder than a speeding curve ball. His ties to the island run deep: Vazquez was born in Puerto Rico.
“My mom and dad, sisters, aunts and uncles are still in Puerto Rico,” Vazquez said. “My brother said it was the worst experience he’d ever lived through. The winds were 125 to 135 miles per hour, and he felt the house was going to be blown away. It was punishment for 12 straight hours. There will be a lot of work to do and it will take a lot of time to get back to normal.”
Fortunately, his family’s homes were damaged but not destroyed.
“I have seven players on my team who are from Puerto Rico,” added Vazquez, who was named Assistant Coach of the Year by the Alabama Baseball Coaches Association in 2013.
When coaches at the University of Houston recently put out a call to assist Hurricane Harvey storm victims, Vazquez, the Hornets and other ASU coaches were there to help.
Now, Vazquez has spearheaded a project to send a cargo plane to Puerto Rico. The plane will be laden with donations from communities across Alabama.
“When Maria hit Puerto Rico, my players who are from there and the entire team wanted to help,” he said. “It was awesome to feel the unity in the team; the upper classmen and the younger players all wanted to get involved.”
ASU held a donation drive for Hurricane Maria storm victims at its Wheeler-Watkins Baseball Complex on Oct. 5.
“We collected water, Alabama Power came in with batteries and flashlights and other items,” Vazquez said. “It was awesome. It was very impressive.”
Broderick Smith, president of the Southern Division Chapter of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO), was there to deliver a truckload of donations from company employees to ASU.
“Once the hurricanes hit, we all wanted to do something,” said Field Service Representative Smith, who has worked at Alabama Power for 32 years. “I asked our Southern APSO chairpersons to start collecting supplies. I saw coach Vazquez on TV saying they needed help. I saw it and said ‘Good.’ I labeled all of the supplies with ‘APSO Power of Good’ and we put all the supplies in the truck. We had everything from canned goods, paper goods, toiletries, Pampers and hygiene items.”
Smith said employees from Alabama Power’s Montgomery Business Office, Montgomery Engineering and the Customer Service Center donated to the project.
Vazquez awaits the final details about the cargo plane’s flight, with plans to transport all items to Disciples of Christ Church in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. The church will distribute items to people in need.
“Toa Baja was one of the towns that was really destroyed,” Vazquez said. “The church had lots of damage, but they’ve been plugging along and feeding people in the area.
“It’s a beautiful area, but the devastation was so large it has taken the area back many years,” he said. “The community was outstanding in coming out to help. We’ve collected over the past week and a half. There are a lot of moving parts to this project.”
Native daughter rises to help Puerto Rico
Seeing caring people give their time, money and other donations following Hurricane Maria means the world to Myrna Merced Serrano.
That is why Serrano, who was born in Puerto Rico, was among about 15 volunteers who organized donations at Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Vestavia Hills on Saturday, Oct. 14. A truck was filled to its entire length with donations: water, diapers and wipes, food, hygiene products, cleaning items and clothing.
“When I saw a notice that Alabama Power was supporting the efforts for Puerto Rico, I was going to be there,” said Serrano, computer systems analyst in Power Delivery at Alabama Power Corporate Headquarters in Birmingham for six years. “I worked four hours on Saturday. There was a lot to do, sorting – all the donations were coming and we were marking through bar codes, writing ‘donation’ on each item and putting them in boxes.”
Like Vazquez, Merced Serrano’s mission is personal: Though she has lived in Birmingham for six years, her grandparents, many cousins, aunts and uncles are still on the island. After Hurricane Maria hit, her relatives were safe near Merced Serrano’s hometown of Yabucoa, in the island’s eastern region, but they had material losses. Serrano’s aunt, Waleska Carrasquillo, lost her home.
“I’m not able to talk to my family very often,” said Serrano, who graduated from Puerto Rico University in Humacao and earned a master’s degree from Florida State University. “They still don’t have a cell phone signal in the town. They have to drive 30 minutes to call us, to get close to a cell tower so they can call.”
The donations Merced Serrano helped organize – from APSO’s Plant Miller, Magic City and Eastern Division chapters – along with items from several Birmingham-area churches and nonprofit groups, will be transported on a cargo plane from Birmingham to Puerto Rico in November.
A labor of love by hundreds of people
After the major onslaught from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, members of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) banded together with nonprofit groups to help, said Community Initiatives Program Manager Tan Grayson for Charitable Giving at Alabama Power.
On Oct. 13, the Alabama Power Foundation donated $6,000 in support of residents of Puerto Rico. Plant Gaston employees held a gate drive before and after work to take donations for Puerto Rico, which allowed Gaston APSO to donate $5,200 to Samaritan’s Purse. Other chapters partnered with nonprofits such as High Socks for Hope and Puerto Rico Rises. Indeed, the projects are a labor of love by many employees.
“We started off with collecting items for residents affected by Harvey and Irma, and the overflow is going to Puerto Rico residents,” said Grayson, who has worked at Alabama Power 15 years. “But this is just the APSO piece. On Tuesday, two employees took airboats to Louisiana to help. It’s amazing how people have come together.”
Grayson said that APSO members – representing Eastern Division, Magic City, Miller, Mobile, Southern and Western chapters – filled six-and-a-half pickup trucks with goods for Puerto Rico.
Sixteen board members for Magic City APSO met in an Alabama Power training room to place “Power of Good” stickers on relief items on Oct. 11. The next day, several members shopped for additional supplies.
Magic City President Nicole Hedrick said, “We’re getting cleaning items to help them clean up the destruction. We’ll also be giving mosquito nets and mosquito repellent, things you don’t even think of. These things are needed; these folks have a lot of rebuilding to do. Anything and everything helps them.”
The goods were among several boxes delivered to Shades Mountain Baptist Church, where volunteers packed the relief items.
Miller APSO President Venito Chavez Fuller was among those who assisted.
“Miller employees began collecting donations and items when the hurricanes started in Texas,” said Fuller, who has worked at Alabama Power for 32 years. “We wanted to get these to somebody in Puerto Rico.”
Plant Miller employees donated money, canned goods and paper items, which filled a large pallet cage. Miller Supply Chain Management Buyer Tina Valles delivered the items to Shades Mountain Baptist Church.
“This is like any other situation – everybody needs help at times,” Miller said. “This is a humanitarian crisis. This year has been extraordinary for all the agencies. We wanted to help somebody.”
Giving from their hearts
The opportunity to work with the community in assisting her country touched Serrano’s heart.
“I was expecting food, but people gave so much more,” she said. “There was a lot of everything … They need all of that.
“I really, really appreciate the support of APSO for the Puerto Rican community,” Merced Seranno said. “It’s very awesome. I feel very emotional about it.”