PUERTO RICO –In the wake of Hurricane Maria laying waste to this and other U.S.-controlled Atlantic islands, the response from both the Red Cross and the federal government have been sharply criticized. Media coverage has also been blasted.In the wake of what has happened, several Pagan activists have set their sights on helping the people most in need. Among that number, a few have opted to support Black Flag Search and Rescue, a team of rescue workers who are “doing the work because no one else will,” in the words of Druid Casey McCarthy, who has been providing logistical support for those efforts.
Originally called Black Flag Camp, McCarthy says that this is a group of indigenous people and allies who are intent on providing aid to those who tend to get it last.
Their camp was the last standing at Standing Rock in North Dakota. In September after Hurricane Harvey, the team went into areas of Houston, Texas that no other rescue workers would and, at least, once bullets were fired their way.
They provided relief in Miami after Hurricane Irma and, thanks to people like McCarthy and the members of Solar Cross Temple, they were able to secure a flight to Puerto Rico.
McCarthy originally planned to join the rescue team on the trip, but when it became clear he wouldn’t be able to do so he refocused his energies on other ways to support the operation. At times that means being the spokesperson for the team, a position which admits to making him uncomfortable.
“I’m not the white savior mouthpiece for these folks,” he explains. “They have their own set of experiences, which need to be accurately highlighted.”
One of the important ways McCarthy has been providing support was by connecting Black Flag and Solar Cross, members of which often raise funds for disaster relief.
Solar Cross president T. Thorn Coyle says she first learned about the team as they were headed to Texas, and she immediately knew it was a good fit.
“A small, autonomous group that could get into places directly without waiting on red tape to clear is just the sort of thing we like to support,” she says.
From that point, Black Flag was getting all that Solar Cross members could muster. Coyle recalls, “We began fundraising as they were on the road south from Colorado. They did great work in Texas, under harrowing conditions, including getting shot at. Once the second round of storms hit, they moved on to Florida, picking up more skilled volunteers along the way. They delivered food and water and medical gear in Florida, heading all the way down to the Keys.”
“And then Puerto Rico was devastated,” Coyle says, “Black Flag had access to hundreds of pounds of supplies, they had boats, search-and -rescue gear, first aid equipment and trained people. They even had a donation of jet fuel. What they needed was a plane.”
Coyle said that she “reached out for help to a well-connected person, and his people came through.”
“Within two days Black Flag were packed up and off to Puerto Rico, despite many setbacks and a lot of red tape.”
What makes accurate highlighting of the experiences of Black Flag team members difficult is the fact that they’ve been moving from action to action, disaster to disaster nearly constantly for some months.
“At least they have a web site now,” said Coyle. Even that remains a work in progress: team member names and pictures are now online, but beyond that each entry is simply, “bio coming soon.”
That is why McCarthy’s efforts to get a statement directly about the situation on the ground in Puerto Rico from team leader Payu Vane resulting in nothing.
“He told me, ‘We’re kind of busy here,’ ” McCarthy explains in an apologetic tone. The Wild Hunt readers will have to rely upon McCarthy’s understanding of what he’s been told, supplemented by the reporting in other news outlets which are finally coming into focus.
In addition, Black Flag member Anthony Gazotti has been posting occasional snippets of information on his personal Facebook feed.
“They just hit boots on the ground,” McCarthy reports. “From what I understand from their reports, the Red Cross and larger organizations are purposefully blocking access to certain things, making it hard to help. Money sent to the Red Cross is reportedly not reaching the ground; it’s a fairly common theme to make sure they get paid first. I appreciate that they work on grander level, but the monetary resources aren’t reaching” the people who need it.
“They encountered obstacles getting to Puerto Rico, and there are many challenges there on the ground,” Coyle explains.
“The stories coming out — about goods not being released, government stumbling blocks, workers offering to help and being refused because of lack of proper clearance, and people struggling with no access to help – have been confirmed by Black Flag [members].”
Gazotti posted on Sept. 29 that they were headed to the western side of the island, where people had been without food or water for a week. They had with them tools to clear the roads as they went, plus food and water for the people that they reached.
“Please let anyone in the area know we are there to help and all food and water we carry is for them,” he wrote, stressing the importance that residents understand that Black Flag is made up of volunteers, rather than being government or Red Cross employees. His most recent post, dated Sept. 30, was an attempt to find insulin-distribution locations.
It is possible that Gazotti also believes that making the distinction that the Black Flag members are volunteers might save their lives. McCarthy reports that a sniper took aim at their boat, and the resulting holes appear to have come from something in the .50-caliber range.
They’ve also been turned away at gunpoint by U.S. Marines, who advised that there is just no way to tell if they are aid workers or looters. Team members themselves have witnessed violence perpetrated by looters and soldiers alike, but they have continued their efforts to hand out food and medicine as well as help reunite families when possible.
Coyle says that Solar Cross “will continue to support [Black Flag] by raising funds and spreading the news.”
PayPal donations to the temple can be earmarked for this effort: send them to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Black Flag/Hurricane Relief” as the subject line. “Save your receipt if you need a tax write-off,” she advises.
While power on the island is slowly being restored, fuel supplies are low enough that it might not continue uninterrupted, even at hospitals. That’s led to concerns that dialysis will not be available for the roughly 5,000 Puerto Ricans who need it; that is if they manage to reach a center at all.
In addition, it is expected that conditions will result in a cholera outbreak, which may result in a rising death toll. At this point, that figure itself is frozen at 16, having not been updated in nearly a week. There are more pressing needs at the moment than updating statistics.