Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla: What is your background, and where were you raised?
Ret Colonel Evelio Otero: I was raised in San Juan Puerto Rico. Upon graduation from High School I left in 1978 to attend University at Iowa State University. I went on to a 28-year military career in the Air Force. Upon retirement, I founded Course of Action Foundation, an established 501 (c) 3 organization, and participated in community policy events.
Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla: Take us back to the days leading up to September 20th, 2017; as Hurricane Maria made its way toward the Island of Puerto Rico. – how did you feel, and what went through your mind during those hours?
Ret Colonel Evelio Otero: Well, we have been tracking Maria as we evacuated to North Carolina readying for Hurricane Irma. Maria was not changing its path and we began making phone calls to family and friends in Puerto Rico to make sure they were taking the necessary steps. I had a deep bad sense in my stomach that this time it would be heartbreaking. When we got back to Tampa I was glued to the weather report and feeling helpless that such a monster hurricane was about to descend in Puerto Rico at 154 MPH Category 5. Understanding that in the mountains and around the island outside on San Juan historical devastation was very likely.
Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla: How big a role did your military background play in putting together the plan of action for Puerto Rico relief – and how fast were you able to implement it?
Ret Colonel Evelio Otero: Well, it was important to get in touch with like minded individuals who understood what discipline and organization meant to what could be a large relief operation. All those contacted supported and dozens of civilians understood the importance of a plan, priorities, objectives, etc. I the beginning it was precise. The civilians who took on leadership roles in the organization proved to be tremendous assets and at times were key in the decision-making process. It became clear to me that our organization, Course of Action Foundation, a 501 (c) 3, was the best venue to track all donations for Puerto Rico, whether cash donations, or supplies. This gave several entities a sense of relief and we were joined in the effort.
Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla: What was the first thing you did?
Ret Colonel Evelio Otero: First, I visited the warehouse to view a possible staging point. Brenda Irizarry, wife of Richard Trela, owner of Homeland Intelligence Technologies, invited me to see what she was working on. Unbelievable energy and the place was perfect, 25,000 sq. feet. Then we had to assess ways to send what we collected. We could not receive supplies that we were not prepared to send. We evaluated if financial donations would be necessary as we could not count on solely free planes, or ships. Then we contacted mayors in Puerto Rico, as well as churches. We identified a team that would go to Puerto Rico to ensure delivery of goods and moved forward. We had to remember that this is 100% voluntary organization and we had to take into account that factor and not burn out the wonderful hundreds of volunteers we received.
Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla: Tell us about how you went about building your team;
Ret Colonel Evelio Otero: I know you had a big team of people that jumped in immediately to help; who would you say played a major part in the relief efforts.
We put together a basic skeleton crew then folks joined in as needs arose and they proved valuable to the organization. Key players were Luis Raul Laracuente who established the first contact with the Puerto Rico government leadership in Orlando. Of course, Liza Rivera-Ruse, who was totally responsible for a very successful website, Facebook page, and road signs around Tampa. A consummate professional she was the face of the effort along with Brenda and Arlene Marie Oliva. Arlene Marie is the President of All American Music entertainment and they were key in the coordination, phone calls, negotiations and orchestrating the Air Force donating airplanes as well as private entities donating dozens of containers. All American was directly responsible in obtaining 5 additional warehouses to support the monstrous effort we found ourselves in. Antonio Soler became the operations head on the floor. Antonio and Linda Davila, who ran the volunteer and packing process, made this effort flourish. Key folks who never hesitated to work 14 and 15-hour days such as MSG Walter Gonzalez, Aaron Trommater, and Brenda’s father, Edwin, who worked harder than anybody, and Marisol Garcia. I got to mention TSgt Kelvin Valle, a logistics expert, who worked in the planning of the logistics and travelled several times to Puerto Rico to directly supervised the process of distribution and many times fix kinks in the process. Finally, Mariann Persad who was the key person in orchestrating the shipping process and in essence designed the manifest process and coordination with the shipping companies. Many more contributed far and above what anyone expected. Hundreds showed up on the weekends to sweat and pack and ship. I have to be deeply grateful to the biggest guardian of our effort, Rep Janet Cruz, without wanting anything in return, quiet and kind, showed up and offered her hands to support the volunteers as well as contacts to assist in our effort. Thanks to her the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Lighting, Tampa Bay Rays, Amscot, and others made the shipping possible of 500,000 pounds of supplies, of the 3 million pounds of inventory we had. Senator Dana Young came to the warehouse and helped us obtain additional space at the airport. Commissioner Stacy White was a welcomed support as well. Finally, Mr. Tom Pepin who selflessly put our disposable his much-needed trucks. Mr Joe Capitano, and the Ybor Italian leadership were instrumental. As of course Mr Jose Fourquet from Merrill Lynch who leased private planes and flew supplies to Ponce. So, we had major supporters from the Minnesota Twins organization to New York Yankees to the Carlos carrasco Foundation they made our effort successful
Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla: How many Lbs. of relief supplies were you able to ship, and what did it all consist of?
Ret Colonel Evelio Otero: About 3 million pounds of which about 1.2 million was water. The rest were medical supplies, generators, food, diapers, hygiene, cleaning tools, electric saws, rakes, hammers, etc. Some were delayed for shipping reasons, but all was distributed. We shipped directly to the recipients, the people, and tried to avoid the State Government in Puerto Rico and prevent the log jam of containers in San Juan. We did that very successfully and became one of the largest relief organizations in the country.
Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla: Tell us about how your Organization was able to help Puerto Rico, and what efforts are still in play right now?
Ret Colonel Evelio Otero: We identified key towns where we concentrated to establish an effective network. Towns such as Toa Baja, Isabela, Mayaguez, Ponce, Rincon, Aguada, Aibonito, Salinas, etc. We ended operations in 27 Dec 2017 and now Course of Action Foundation is providing a grant for an in-depth study of what the collapse of Puerto Rico, whether short term or long term, means to the economy in Florida and evaluate lessons learned for policies that have helped or not the economic development of a destroyed economy where the projection is that 30,000 small business are due to close in Puerto Rico. What platforms do we have in Florida to integrate the new folks arriving which as of today are close to 400,000 folks. Are there any lessons to learn with a similar scenario anywhere in the United States? We are looking at awarding scholarships to university students willing to concentrate on this effort and look at Latin America as a fertile ground for economic relations.
Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla: What message do you send to those people that still want to continue to help Puerto Rico – what can they do?
Ret Colonel Evelio Otero: One thing we are looking at is helping the businesses in Puerto Rico, sending aid by ship or plane is counterintuitive at this point. The businesses there need the support of the purchasing power that we have. I would encourage buying goods there and have them sent to the folks in Puerto Rico. But with guarantees that the money is used properly.
Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla: What’s next for Puerto Rico?
Ret Colonel Evelio Otero: Puerto Rico will rise from this. It is the nature of the Puerto Rican people. Fighters, highly dedicated to improving their lives. As far as the people, the exodus of citizens will have an enormous detrimental effect in the island’s economy, but it will also help clarify what is really important to those left behind or willing to eventually go back. It will set straight the reality that Puerto Ricans are American citizens and not just an immigration group of hurricane victims. They bring in a unique quality that can only be positive to the Florida economy if the State views it as American citizens ready to work immediately. Puerto Rico as a form of government needs to reevaluate its economic realities and make sure that its citizens have an opportunity and never take for granted its citizens.