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'Fragile,' elderly couple escapes hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico with help of family, Louisiana mission

The Advocate - 10/12/2017

Oct. 12--After trying dozens of ways to get her elderly parents out of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico over the past three weeks, Zelideth Jimenez Ceasar had all but given up hope.

That changed abruptly Tuesday when 87-year-old Josefina Santos Jimenez and 90-year-old Efrain Jimenez, a long-retired dock worker, were picked up by an humanitarian mission organized by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson and restaurateur Bill Hammack to deliver supplies to Ponce, Puerto Rico. They had room on the plane for the return trip, so they brought the Jimenez couple and four others to New Orleans.

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By Wednesday night, Ceasar's parents were in her home on the west coast of Florida.

Since Sept. 20, when Hurricane Maria made landfall near Ponce as a near Category 5 storm, the elderly couple lived in a house near the docks that had flooded and had no roof. For more than three weeks, the town of about 165,000 people has been without electricity and fresh water has been scarce.

"Only thing I was thinking that whole time was they're fragile. They have medical needs. There's no food. There's no way they could survive. I didn't want them to die like that," Ceasar said Wednesday while driving to Tampa International Airport to pick up her parents.

"It's the most hopeless feeling you can have. No power, no water, no communications, whatsoever. And the pictures I saw, I felt like," she pauses, "like I lost my family, lost my Mom and Dad. And nobody could help us, nobody."

The Jimenez's journey from Puerto Rico to Louisiana to Florida began Sunday when James Ceasar, Zelideth's husband, followed a tweeted link to an article in The Advocate about the Peterson mission and decided it was worth a shot. He had been following the catastrophic conditions via blogs and Twitter, trying to find transportation off the island for his in-laws or a place to stay that had water and electricity.

"We'd tried everything else," James Ceasar said. On Monday, he wrote an email to Peterson, whom he never heard of, describing his in law's situation and asking for help.

That evening Peterson's team visited the Jimenez couple and offered them a ride.

"You take a shot in the dark," James Ceasar said. "You email a senator, not even from Florida but from a different state. You don't expect a reply but you have to try. Her parents definitely would have died."

"It was surreal; after all this time. You're talking about two old people on an island with three and million people," Zelideth Ceasar said. "It was a miracle for us and it happened because of this lady."

Peterson, who is also chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party, cobbled together the humanitarian mission with Hammack over the weekend. She had spent nine days in Puerto Rico looking over conditions and came back wanting to do something.

Hastily organized, the effort had the feel of kids putting together a play. But they collected about $100,000 worth of supplies and took it Ponce on Tuesday morning.

Dr. Eric George, a New Orleans surgeon, gave the Peterson mission the use of his plane. Atlantic Aviation sold the fuel at cost. The Blake Hotel put up the six people brought to New Orleans from Ponce.

LCMC Health sent four pallets of included catheters, sutures, needles, scrubs, operating room gloves, tourniquets, surgical drapes, and toiletries. Ochsner Health System donated needles/syringes, bedpans, gauze, antiseptics, surgical masks and other basic medical supplies, along with hygiene products. This was added to donations people made from around New Orleans.

Hammack said they'll have to make a second trip next week to get all the donations over to Ponce.

"When we landed there wasn't a single airplane there," Hammack said. "Ponce has a deepwater port and there weren't any ships. I don't understand why they aren't flying in supplies on a daily basis."

Ponce Mayor María Eloisa Meléndez Altieri met the New Orleans group on the tarmac with trucks. She said that for more than a week Ponce had been expecting $3 million in supplies from San Juan, but they haven't arrived.

"Not unlike Katrina, it is complicated by layers of bureaucracy; with blurred lines of what the city, state and federal government are doing," Hammack said. "A lack of coordination, along with horrible telephone and internet connectivity, is complicating the logistics."

A number of the most critical medical patients in Ponce had been transported to the U.S. the day before, Hammack said, so they decided to take elderly people back to New Orleans when they left Tuesday afternoon.

"It was such a blessing to be able to assist a family in need with their evacuation efforts," Peterson said Wednesday in text. "Bill and I are grateful that we were able to help the Jimenez family and so many others with the donations collected from generous New Orleanians."

"I feel very fortunate for my parents. But I cannot forget the thousands of people who are unable to leave," Zelideth Ceasar said. "We are going to dedicate ourselves to helping the relief efforts for those others."

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(c)2017 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

Visit The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. at www.theadvocate.com

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