Kula woman is working to help mother on Puerto Rico

Maui group collecting goods and donations to send to people trapped on island

Kula resident Leslie Leclerc stands behind her 71-year-old mother, Gloria Montes.

It has been “the hardest month of my life,” said Kula resident Leslie Leclerc, a native of Puerto Rico, as her childhood home was destroyed by Hurricane Maria and communication with relatives on the U.S. territory has been hampered as most electric services remain out.

Leclerc, 46, said that her mother, brother and a sister were not injured as the Category 4 storm hit the Atlantic island Sept. 20. Leclerc has another sister who lives in Washington state.

Her mother’s home, which was also Leclerc’s childhood home, in Mayaguez — 3¢ hours west of San Juan — was once surrounded by trees, a manicured lawn and a lush landscape. It is now a scene of broken tree limbs and a torn-up roof.

“It’s basically the trees fell right on top (of the house). It shifted the house here and there,” said Leclerc. “It rained nonstop the whole week of the hurricane. Everything in (the house) got ruined pretty much.”

Leclerc said that the only thing that didn’t get wet was her mom’s closet.

Kula resident Leslie Leclerc’s childhood home on Puerto Rico was destroyed by Hurricane Maria last month. Leclerc’s mother, who still resides on Puerto Rico, was not at the home during the storm.

Leclerc and her friends in the Maui Puerto Rican Association are gathering monetary donations as well as donations of goods such as water filters. Thirty percent of customers on Puerto Rico are without water and water available to the others may be contaminated.

Donations may be made at Heritage Hall at 401 Baldwin Ave., Suite 2, in Paia from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. People with questions should call Association President BJ Uwekoolani at 264-7770.

Uwekoolani, who has visited Puerto Rico multiple times, is heartbroken by the devastation.

“The different areas we see on TV, it’s: ‘Oh my God. No way.'” Uwekoolani said. “It doesn’t look the same.”

“Our hearts go out to the people who are so open to us visitors, so accepting of us,” Uwekoolani said. “When we tell them we are from Hawaii, they get so excited.”

Members of the Maui Puerto Rican Association pack boxes of supplies, clothes and other items they plan to send to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico on Thursday afternoon in Waiehu. The group said it is hoping to find a business to donate a container and shipping, or other organizations that would like to help send goods to those in need on the island. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Uwekoolani, whose ancestors moved from Puerto Rico to Hawaii, said that club members have friends and family in the territory, some of whom still cannot be contacted.

Even though a month has passed since the hurricane hit, Puerto Rico is struggling to restore its utilities and infrastructure. Less than half of Puerto Rico’s cellphone towers are operating, only 64 percent of bank branches have reopened and schools remain closed. Although 90 percent of supermarkets have reopened, many have bare rows of shelves.

Living on an island as well, Uwekoolani said she understands the plight Puerto Ricans are going through.

“It’s nice to reach out,” she said. “It could have been us.”

Uwekoolani is seeking the donation of a shipping container as well as funds for shipping to the territory. She is hoping to get a container sent to Puerto Rico by next month, but is still working on the logistics.

BJ Uwekoolani

On Puerto Rico, residents like Leclerc’s 71-year-old mother, Gloria Montes, are taking it “one day at a time.”

Montes is closing out her utility accounts and settling matters before she heads to Washington state to stay with a daughter.

Leclerc’s friends and coworkers at Haleakala Waldorf School, where she is a kindergarten teaching assistant, set up a GoFundMe page to help Montes and her family.

Montes stayed with her son during the hurricane, and his home was not damaged because it is made with cement and the homes in his area are close together, so that protected the homes from further damage, Leclerc said.

Leclerc and Montes have tried to keep in touch since the hurricane, but rely on times when a generator is running and Montes’ cellphone has power and reception.

Waihee Elementary School 2nd-grader Hi‘ilei DeFrancia-Uwekoolani, 7, helps pack a box of stuffed animals Thursday afternoon for children in Puerto Rico. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

After the storm, it took Leclerc nine days to get in touch with her mother.

“That was really, really, hard,” she said.

Leclerc is able to communicate with a sister living on Puerto Rico who goes to a laboratory near her home that has Wi-Fi and lets residents use its internet. The WhatsApp messenger has also been helpful, Leclerc said.

The days following the storm were especially tough — people had to wait in line for five hours just to get $100 out of the bank. There were also regulations on how much gas a person could take to run a generator. Those restrictions have since been lifted.

Unlike hurricanes that Leclerc has experienced as a youngster that touched portions of Puerto Rico, Maria hit the entire island.

“It’s been very, very, hard on the island,” she said. “It was a big hit.”

* The Associated Press contributed to this report. Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.


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