TORONTO – When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Toronto FC defender Jason Hernandez, like so many others with ties to the island, found himself anxiously glued to the news.
A native of New York City, Hernandez’s thoughts turned to Naranjito, a mountainous region 30 minutes outside the capital, San Juan. That’s where he has a grandmother, uncle, and cousin — and he worried for their safety.
Luckily, he says, everyone made it through the storm physically okay. But as the aftermath of the storm dawned, so did new concerns.
Hernandez's grandmother's house in Naranjito, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Jason Hernandez
“Luckily, their house was fine; everyone was safe,” he says. “[Then] it becomes: how long are they expected to live without power, without a refrigerator, without running water. Anything we can do to help their situation, make it more manageable.”
But his initial efforts to reach out to his family failed at first, with cell phone towers and electricity down. News from Naranjito remained scarce.
“You were only able to speak every three or four days,” Hernandez recalls, “[when] they could get to a place that had cell service. When that happens, it creates a lot of difficulties and uncertainty.”
To make things worse, his grandmother’s health conditions necessitates a consistent power supply. So the MLS veteran wanted to get a generator to her as soon as possible — and then he hit a logistical wall. With its combustible parts, powered by gasoline, he couldn’t find a place to ship it like a normal package.
“Even if I wanted to pay an overcharge to check it with me to go on a flight, bring it myself, it's not allowed on a plane,” Hernandez says. “There were a lot of special things that needed to be done to get it over there. With all of the different companies, red tape, everywhere I turned I got the run around, talked in circles.
“It was very frustrating. In a time where a lot of Americans, people around the world, are trying to get some clarity [on] sending help: What is the most efficient way to do it?”
Naturally, then, he reached out to his MLS family, hoping to get the word out via social media, in case anyone had ideas or connections.
“I [had] tried all the traditional methods and maybe someone knew of something – a different organization, a charity – that was doing this that I could get a hold of,” he says. None of that worked — so he sent a tweet.
Please read and share. Any info would be greatly appreciated... pic.twitter.com/LFN0hDitSf— Jason Hernandez (@JasonH_2) October 13, 2017
“Luckily, everybody I reached out to responded, retweeted and shared, sent the message, got [it] out there,” he says, “and I was able to get a bunch of different people with different avenues to help me out.”
Thanks to the signal boost, ultimately, a friend from his NYCFC days, Sam Pugsley, a coordinator with the team, came to the rescue. Hernandez’s mother had the generator in the metropolitan area, and Pugsley used his and NYCFC's relationship with a shipping company to expedite the process, making sure the needed delivery arrived promptly and safely.
The generator, safely in Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Jason Hernandez
Just a few days later, the generator finally arrived safely in Puerto Rico, and Hernandez continues to hold out hope for them in the island’s rebuilding process. “Everyone is doing alright,” he says. “It's going to be a long road, a long process to recover. You've got to have faith.”
Still, his work in supporting the people of Puerto Rico isn’t done yet, and he’s urging fans, via social media, to continue to help. On Twitter, Hernandez has shared campaigns like the Puerto Rico Hurricane Maria Relief Fund organized by the J.J. Barea Foundation (of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks) and Somos Una Voz, a relief initiative involving Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and Alex Rodriguez, to name but a few.
“There are quite a few [organizations collecting and sending aid]; a lot of people doing special things that are going to be remembered for a long time,” said Hernandez. “This is a real trying time for the island. A lot of people are stepping up to help.
“Myself and a lot of people I've spoken to around the league are looking forward to this off-season, to take some opportunity, whether it's donating our time or money, to what they need,” he adds. “A lot of people have contacted me already. I feel really lucky about that also.”
Social media has a mixed reputation in this fractious world — but in this case, for Hernandez, it came through. “Anyone who follows me knows I'm not really a social media person,” he says. “To reach out, get the momentum going and see all of the positive, helpful, and thoughtful things that people thought or said or shared... To me it was overwhelming. It says a lot about the type of people still out there, willing to step up.”