Jolie: What is your background, and where were you raised?
Luis Laracuente: I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. At the age of 12 my parents moved my sister and I to Lutz, FL., at a time when North Dale Mabry was still a two-lane road. I graduated High School from Sickles and went on to study Political Science at the University of South Florida- Tampa Campus. I currently work for the Hillsborough County Republican Party.
Jolie: 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 when the storm was ravaging the island?
Luis Laracuente: It was a mix of feelings because Irma had missed just a few weeks prior so there were still hopes that Maria would do the same. I remember speaking with my parents (who live in Puerto Rico) a few days leading up to Maria and my mom saying your dad is worried. Now, my dad never gets worried or at least hides it well. So, that’s when I knew this was serious. It’s important to note that for Puerto Ricans hurricanes were a normal occurrence. You grow up being told that houses and buildings in Puerto Rico can withstand any storm because of the way they are built. Though, that was the believe until Maria hit. As soon as it made land fall hotels, homes, bridges, roads, etc. were being torn apart. News reports were coming out that rivers were over flowing, and towns were being flooded. What I felt was nothing compared to what every single Puerto Rican was feeling that day. I was worried sure, but they were horrified. I went home this past holiday season and what I saw did not look anything like what I had seen just 5 months prior.
Jolie: Tell us about September 29th, 2017 for you…. Were you able to reach your family?
Luis Laracuente: I was able to reach my family the day of the hurricane. For some reason my mom’s phone was able to receive phone calls for a few hours after Maria. After those first few hours passed, all communication stopped for about two weeks. Thankfully, most of my family living in Puerto Rico (aunt, uncle, grandparents and parents) were all staying at my parent’s house. So, we knew that if one was safe, all were safe.
Jolie: How did you get involved in relief efforts in Tampa?
Luis Laracuente: After those first few hours, losing communication with my family and watching the destruction as some pictures were coming out I picked up the phone and called the one person I knew would know what to do, Colonel EJ Otero.
Jolie: Tell us about the Tampa team, the people and organizations behind the efforts;
Luis Laracuente: I know it was a big team of people that jumped in immediately to help; who would you say played a major part in the relief efforts. The team became a family! We truly did. It was something I had never experienced before. People from all walks of life came together for one mission, to help Puerto Rico. The amazing thing about it was that every person that came into the team came with a specific set of skills that proved essential to the team. Course Of Action PR, All American Music Productions and Homeland Intelligence Technologies took the lead but these organizations were comprised of experienced leaders like, Air Force Retired Colonel EJ Otero, Army Retired Colonel Bill Oliva, Army Master Sergeant Walter Gonzalez, Air Force Tech Sergeant Kelvin Valle, Brenda Irizarry, Richard Trella, Arlene Oliva, Liza Fleming, Edwin Santana, Antonio Soler, Linda Perez, Marisol Garcia, Jose Daniel Garcia, Don Edwin Irizarry, Doña Isabel Cancel, Luis Adorno, Deborah Tamargo, Mariann Persad were among many, many more.
Jolie: What role did you play in these efforts?
Luis Laracuente: My role was minimal compared to those of Colonels Otero & Oliva but being involved in politics I tried to gather as much assistance from elected officials here in Tampa. Several of the current PRFFA staffers are colleagues of mine so the first phone call I made after speaking with Colonel Otero was to those working for the government of Puerto Rico in Orlando and Washington D.C. In addition, I helped with parking (which in my opinion was the most fun) and packing as everyone else on the team did. What was truly special about this team was that every single one of us did the hard work.
Jolie: What obstacles did you encounter, and how were you able to overcome them?
Luis Laracuente: There were many as could be expected of an operation that was never expected to reach the level of complexity that it did. But teamwork and the leadership of our leaders is what proved to be the golden key to our success.
Jolie: Have you visited Puerto Rico since the Hurricane?
Luis Laracuente: Yes, I went home for Christmas and what I saw was a different Puerto Rico. Though, trees have begun to flourish again, and some rebuilding has taken effect there is still a level of uncertainty among the people. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without power, light posts are still hanging over roads and long lines are still a normalcy.
Jolie: What message do you want to send to those people that still want to continue to help Puerto Rico – what can they do?
Luis Laracuente: To please continue helping. Not necessarily monetarily but by posting if they hear of job openings. In my own opinion the only way to prosper is to work. So that is what Puerto Ricans need the most now. Mind you many of those moving to the states are college educated so they are qualified professionals that can impact the economy here in Florida positively.
Jolie: What’s next for Puerto Rico?
Luis Laracuente: Government of Puerto Rico needs to put an end to bureaucratic and political games. During the first few days after the hurricane everyone came together with optimism. Hoping for a stronger Puerto Rico. Therefore, it is time to make that a reality. The governor needs to focus solely on improving Puerto Rico.