The Viacommunity Spirit Emerges from the Eye of the Storm
As Hurricane Maria intensified to a Category 5 storm and set a bullseye on Puerto Rico last September, Victor Caro knew there was only one place he could go: directly into the eye of the storm.
Though he lived in Connecticut, both Caro and his wife had grown up in Puerto Rico. Most of his family still lived there, including his 90-year-old grandmother. The island’s storm supplies had been wiped out when Hurricane Irma had skirted the island earlier that month. So Caro would fly down with bags stuffed full of water purification supplies, batteries, emergency radios, and portable stoves. The day before the storm hit, he boarded a nearly empty San Juan-bound plane out of JFK airport.
He bunkered down in the family’s concrete house in Carolina with his grandmother, aunt and cousin. The wind and rain started that first night and continued all the next day. The windows shook, but the house held.
When the family finally emerged, it was to a wrecked world: electricity knocked out island-wide, cellphone service rare and patchy, clean water no longer running from taps. Land lines worked for three days and then stopped. The authorities, where they showed up at all, were slow to arrive and ill-equipped to deal with the scale of the catastrophe.
Caro stayed for a week, clearing debris, checking on friends and family, and distributing what supplies he could. The breeze quit and the family roasted in their uncooled home. Sleep became difficult. At night, they listened to WAPA radio as officials relayed information and, in one instance, desperate hospital staff delivered frantic pleas for help as babies wailed in the background.
When Caro finally boarded a charter plane back to the mainland, the immensity of the destruction he had witnessed – and the inadequacy of the official emergency response – overwhelmed him.
“I’d never felt survivor’s remorse,” Caro said. “But I just felt awful. I don’t think I’d cried in 10 years, and I just bawled that day. For weeks, being at home with my family, watching cable, ordering food, air conditioning, I felt guilty enjoying those things. And that’s part of what motivated me to get out and help the people who were screwed the most.”
Sending angels to the rescue
Actually doing something was more difficult. Bureaucratic and logistical obstacles make moving goods to Puerto Rico arduous under normal circumstances. Arcane shipping regulations meant that the only realistic relief option was to fly supplies in, an expensive and logistically exasperating undertaking.
Enter Warrior Angels Rescue, an extraordinary coalition of concerned citizens on the U.S. mainland and on Puerto Rico, headed by Valerie Edmondson Bolaños. The organization materialized out of Maria’s fumes to deliver supplies to the island and evacuate those whose medical issues made it imperative that they leave.
Over many weeks following the storm, Caro and his wife worked with Warrior Angels Rescue (which is part of the Puerto Rico Relief Alliance), to stitch together a massive relief effort. They gathered 30,000 pounds of medical supplies and donated cargo, along with the $70,000 required to fly them to Puerto Rico. When the plane returned to the mainland, it carried nearly 150 medically fragile passengers – expectant mothers, babies, the elderly, cancer patients.
Caro worked as a sort of fixer, a go-between who had the connections both on the mainland and the island to make the critical link between needs and resources for El Barrio Caimital Bajo y Alto in the Puerto Rican town of Guayama, a town that was in great need even before Maria struck. During the holiday season, their delivery arrived with 3,000 pounds of food, water, toys, formula, baby food, diapers, wipes, toiletries, and more to help 46 families in great need.
The sheer scale of organizing one plane trip was incredible: moving truckloads of water, food, clothing and toys from garages and schools – even, at one point, Caro’s daughter’s kung fu dojo – in the Northeast to and through Florida; raising funds for and coordinating the charter flight to Puerto Rico; moving these materials over a mountainous island with a decimated road network; identifying those most in need of both the supplies and a ride off the island; and ensuring that medical help and transportation to a safe place awaited those who evacuated to the mainland.
His colleagues noticed. When Viacommunity – the company’s social responsibility initiative – put out a companywide call for “exemplary employees who represent Viacom’s sense of social responsibility and make a powerful impact on their communities,” for its annual Viacommunity Award late last year, multiple employees nominated Caro for the honor.
“Every free second he has is spent working with anyone that will listen to help those in need in Puerto Rico,” one said in their nomination.
“It really is part of your soul”
Before the planeloads of supplies and the furious fundraising and the back-and-forth flights, Caro had never truly understood the urgency and importance of charity.
“Before, I would write a check and leave it at that,” said Caro.
But Puerto Rico was different. Caro had spent his childhood there and returned for summers on the island even after moving to Brooklyn at age 11. There, he was constantly surrounded by family and filled with Puerto Rico’s infectious spirit.
“Puerto Rico, for those who were born and raised there, it really is part of your soul and part of who you are,” Caro said. “For me, this was a very personal experience that has allowed me to see how I can really help besides just cutting a check.”
Caro also learned about the downside to such intensive cause immersion – the realization that the problem is far larger than any one person can fix. “My wife and I put in so much time on the phone coordinating with charter companies and people on the ground all over the U.S., and you get all that work done, and it felt like you threw a lawnchair off the Titanic,” he said.
Caro and his wife have each returned to Puerto Rico twice since the storm, and they continue to organize future relief flights. They see some progress – his grandmother’s home once again has electricity, and they have moved his wheelchair-bound father-in-law to Florida. Still, crime and unemployment remain untenably high. Huge chunks of the island are still without power.
“It still doesn’t feel like we did anywhere near enough,” Caro said.
The Viacom family joins the cause
When Caro moved to New York in the late 1980s, it felt as much like home to him as Puerto Rico. Two uncles lived there. He liked the snow and the diversity of Brooklyn. He did well enough in school to attend Boston University, and from there he returned to New York and eventually ended up at Viacom. His career path wound in and out of the organization, and Caro is now a vice president in Nickelodeon Partner Solutions. This company, too, felt like home.
As Maria whirled toward Puerto Rico and Caro decided to head into the storm, this sentiment never felt more genuine. His managers quickly arranged their teams to cover Caro and checked on him constantly while he was out. After Caro returned, a “nice chunk” of the $70,000 to fund that major relief flight came from Viacom employees.
“Viacom has been very generous in raising funds for Puerto Rico,” Caro said, adding that Nickelodeon had donated toys and MTV’s TRL had devoted airtime to the cause. Now, in acknowledgement of his Viacommunity Award, Viacom and Viacommunity will donate an additional $10,000 to Angel Warriors Rescue on Caro’s behalf.
“This money is going to be a huge help for this organization,” said Caro, indicating that the cash would help fund medical supplies for facilities in Cidra and Aguadilla, as well as solar lanterns and other supplies for those in the countryside who still do not have power. “It will impact lives.”