Ben Desa was born in Puerto Rico. He spent some time as a kid in New York, but returned to the island in junior high school.
“It was more of a laidback society,” Desa said. “More of, people to people type relations. More on the family side whereas everyone you met, they were considered family after a while and if you saw them more often they were family even if they were just friends.”
Desa moved around the US—and the world—before retiring from his job in the food industry and settling down with his wife in Springfield.
He would visit old friends on the island whenever he could. It was this connection that had Desa paying close attention to the weather as Hurricane Maria approached.
“Well I was watching the news and I was worried this time because this one was a big one,” Desa said.
Desa tells me hurricane warnings are common in Puerto Rico, but they aren’t always taken seriously.
When Puerto Rico took a direct hit, Desa said he immediately wanted to volunteer.
“When I said, ‘I had to go,’ it’s because of the Puerto Rico of yesteryear said to me. ‘Let’s go. You gotta go and help that country,’” Desa said. “So I volunteered immediately.”
Once he arrived in Puerto Rico, Desa asked his cab driver how bad the damage was. The cab driver offered to give him a tour of the devastation.
“And boy was I surprised,” Desa said. “He showed me, this is in the capitol. Houses turned, roofs gone, big signs, advertising signs that are mounted on poles that are like, what. Poles that are how many inches wide and that thing was just like a tooth pick snapped in half.”
The cab driver told Desa that it was worse inland.
This was the start of Desa’s 64 days on the island volunteering with the American Red Cross. After reporting in, volunteers divided into teams and distributed aid. His days started at 5:00 a.m. and sometimes went to 11:00 at night. He gave out food and water to hurricane victims.
And the hardest part for him? Leaving.
“They didn’t have any hope. They didn’t know what was going on. ‘Is the trucks coming tomorrow again?’ ‘We don’t know.’ ‘How come you don’t know? What am I going to do? My children, my husband is not working,’” Desa said.
Desa said even though he knew someone else would replace him, he still felt uneasy.
“And you hear all this and you’re going is someone else gonna come behind me. Now sure someone else is coming behind you,” Desa said. “But you feel more secure that if you stay you know you’re there and they can count on you at least.”
And now, he says if he were asked to return, he’d be there in a heartbeat.