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New York Extends Helping Hand

Tempest-tossed Puerto Rico rebuilds with generous support from Big Apple officials

With more Puerto Ricans than San Juan itself, New York is gearing up to help hurricane-whipped islanders get back on their sandals.

A team of New York disaster-relief officials is helping federal workers. The city's utility, Con Edison, is contributing emergency teams. And salsa bands are warming up for fund-raisers to help the US territory recover from Hurricane Hortense.

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The city has led the aid effort, but scores of private initiatives are under way too, including an effort this weekend by the Hispanic Clergy Organization. Rev. Ruben Diaz, the organization's leader, is telling some of the other ministers that they had to get their flocks motivated. He's already heard all the excuses, including "I have to clean the house," he says, dusting the table with his hand. "Well no more housecleaning."

The relief effort even has New York's combative politicians working together. Deputy Mayor Ninfa Segarra headed up the city's relief effort with two Hispanic City Council members. "Everyone is putting politics aside; normally we are not considered colleagues," she says. Indeed, the New York officials are getting along better than some of the Caribbean commonwealth's politicians, who are in the midst of a gubernatorial election, Ms. Segarra says.

Early estimates put the damage from Hurricane Hortense at $200 million, with 24 dead.

New Yorkers' response follows the pattern set by any ethnic group when their homeland is devastated. Turkish families send money for earthquake relief, and Filipinos wire funds when their island is lashed by a typhoon. But the reaction is different this time because it involves so much official help.

Included in the Big Apple entourage are representatives of the police, fire, parks, and health departments. The degree of support indicates how important New York considers its Puerto Rican community of nearly 1 million residents and 330,000 Dominicans - nearly 20 percent of the city's population. Perhaps only Israeli politics receives more attention: After a rash of bombs struck Israel in March, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani traveled to the Mideast country to offer moral support.

Behind the latest push is a group of Hispanic elected officials, including members of Congress and Fernando Ferrer, borough president for the Bronx, where about 400,000 Puerto Ricans live. Several organizers announced Monday a concert/fund-raiser at the borough's Hostos Community College. The Hispanic Federation has also established a bank account at Banco Popular, where checks made out to "Ayuda A Los Pueblos" can be sent directly to account 790-067870. "That way the money won't be caught up in some other cause," says Clint Roswell, communications chief for Mr. Ferrer.

Relief is also heading for the Dominican Republic, which was not hit as hard as Puerto Rico. This week two local business organizations, the Forum Club and the Coalition of Italo-American Associations, shipped $2.5 million in medical supplies to Santo Domingo. "This is New York's doctors and hospitals opening their hearts," says spokesman Jay Fox, noting the groups had planned the shipment before Hortense hit.

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For Puerto Rico, New York initially sent bottled water and electric generators. The aid, much of it private, now has to be more targeted, Segarra says. "They need specific items like diapers, soap, toothpaste, infant formula."

This is not the first time the city and its residents have come to Puerto Rico's rescue. In 1989, after Hurricane Hugo trampled the islands, the city sent water and private groups raised money. Mr. Diaz recalls distributing $40,000 to four towns after that storm.

For many Puerto Ricans here, the relief effort is personal. Says Diaz, "I have all my brothers and sisters living on the island."

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