(SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico) — In Puerto Rico, Angel Rios Boneta is helping stranded residents connect with relatives in other parts of the island and overseas via social media.
Rios Boneta, 31, lives and works in San Juan but his parents live in the town of Utuado, a little less than two hours west of the capital city.
On his Facebook page, the father of two has posted more than 50 short videos in Spanish and in English of residents simply stating their names and saying that they are OK in hopes that the messages make it to their families.
“My name is Robert Stone, I live in Utuado, Puerto Rico and I am from Hampton, Virginia and I have friends in Hampton and I have relatives in Georgia and Wisconsin and if they see this thing, know that I am OK and that I’m well taken care of,” one man says in English during a video message. ” That’s it.”
After Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. territory on Sept. 20, killing at least 16, demolishing homes and leaving long lines of residents desperate for gas, Boneta drove to Utuado to check on his family and assist in the recovery effort.
“I arrived in Utuado and people were begging me for water, for food,” he told ABC News in Spanish, holding back tears.
Like nearly half of Puerto Rico, Utuado is still without water. The town also has no electricity. Boneta said that in Utuado, water was a main concern as well as a lack of fuel. Decomposing trees also added a foul smell to the already calamitous situation, he said.
Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello called Maria “probably the single biggest hurricane catastrophe in the history of the US.”
As Boneta initially set out to check on his family after the storm, he said that one of his uncles had asked him to take a cellphone video of his daughter, who lives in a town between San Juan and Utuado, so he could see she was fine.
That simple request turned into a movement for Boneta, prompting him to make videos for people along the way from San Juan to Utuado and around the town’s shelters and streets.
“I feel satisfaction that family members can see that they’re alive. There are many people who don’t know about their families since day one. For a full week they don’t know if they’re alive, and the videos help,” he said.
Boneta said hundreds of people had been asking for help, not only with sending out their videos, but also finding family members who have not been heard of since Maria hit.
“After I posted the first videos, people were messaging me asking me to find their families members,” he said.
The comment section of his videos captures the desperation of many who are still looking for family members they haven’t reached for days. The comments also show a flood of gratitude.
“It’s not just a person saying ‘hi’ to their moms or their children. They don’t know if other family members are also watching them,” Boneta said. “When I get to San Juan and start uploading the videos, I get flooded with messages thanking me for this. People are also contacting me offering help, what they can send, if they can send money for fuel, etc.”
In Utuado, Boneta went to two schools now serving as shelters and that’s where many of the videos have come from.
“Hi there sister, this is your brother Miguel. I’m here. I’m fine. All of us are fine. Thank God,” said another man in a different video.
In comments below Miguel’s video, one person exclaimed: “That’s my uncle!!!!!”
Boneta said he also tries to call family members of the people he’s encountered so they know their families in Utuado are OK.
“Some of them are very emotional, choked up, and I ask them for phone numbers for their family members so we can tell them they’re fine,” he said.
As he posts videos and updates on his page, Boneta has continued to travel back and forth from Utuado, distributing fuel, food and water to people in the town. He said that he has had to spend hours and sometimes a full day in line for fuel and water. The lack of fuel and long lines made getting to Utuado particularly hard.
He said he has been paying out of pocket for the fuel needed to make the trip to Utuado every other day. The long queues to fill the tank of his small car prevent him from traveling every day, as he spends hours waiting. He said offers for donations were pouring in, but he was not doing it for the money.
“I’m not planning to stop,” Boneta said. “I’ll keep doing this until things get back to normal, or until someone tells me I need to stop — and they better give me a valid reason for asking me not to keep doing this.”
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