Hurricane Katrina survivor gives back to Puerto Rico

Published 10:00 am Sunday, June 24, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — When Jazzmine McKee landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in May, all she could see for miles and miles was blue tarps.
She immediately began to cry.

McKee lost her father, Edmund, in Hurricane Katrina. She was 15 years old when the deadly storm took her father and their New Orleans home. Almost 13 years later, the sight of roof tarps was almost too much to bear.

“Anybody from any kind of hurricane knows what that means,” she said. “That’s the universal sign of damage.”

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McKee, her husband Phillip, and their 14-month-old, Mateaux, were in Puerto Rico to distribute baby supplies to those suffering from last year’s Hurricane Maria through their nonprofit, Wear a Baby, Cloth a Baby.

Speaking of her Katrina experience, McKee said, “It’s something that has made me strong. I can go there and I can relate with them.”

When Maria struck the island in 2017, McKee said she felt called by God to help. Of Puerto Rican descent, McKee felt a connection to the island. But she brushed off the idea, thinking “surely somebody bigger and better is going to do it.”

She told herself, “If it doesn’t happen in six months, we’ll give it a whirl.”

McKee said she then promptly forgot about the idea.

Then, exactly six months later, she was at home in Magee with her five children when “Good Morning America” ran a story about the devastation. McKee sprang into action.

A proponent of cloth diapers, wearing babies in slings and breast feeding, McKee decided to help in the best way she felt equipped to handle. She put a call out on Facebook asking her friends if they could donate cloth diapers and liners. She set a donation goal of 100 cloth diapers and 200 liners.

She met her goal within 10 days. She then pushed it to 300, establishing the nonprofit organization along the way and registering it with the secretary of state’s office. Again, her friends helped her meet that goal. Before she knew it, she had collected over 500 diapers and 1,000 cloth liners as well as breast pumps, cloth wipes, carriers, nursing bras and nursing pillows from across the state.

“The numbers were way more than we would have ever guessed,” she said. “They’re donating to people they will never meet, and that’s incredible. I’m still floored by it.”

The couple looked into shipping the donations but discovered that many sat in containers at ports because of the scarcity of diesel and truck drivers. So, the couple prayed about it and decided to go to Puerto Rico themselves.

Self-funded and through donations, they bought their plane tickets, and Phillip took off work. But they didn’t have a plan.

They didn’t know where they were going. They had no contacts in Puerto Rico. They didn’t even speak Spanish.

But the couple had faith.

“When we walked into that New Orleans airport, we had no contact on the other side,” she said. “We were just going on faith and what the Lord told us to do.”

The entire journey was guided by God, McKee said. When they arrived at the airport in New Orleans, the Southwest attendant asked what they were doing with so many bags. When McKee told them of their mission, the attendant checked the $300 worth of luggage for free.

Then, on the plane from Fort Lauderdale, a man sitting next to Phillip struck up a conversation. As the two got to talking, the man told the couple of the places that were hit hardest by the hurricane and gave them a list of cities they should visit along with his phone number if they needed help.

Once the couple got to their AirBNB, their host gave them a discounted rate.

“It was scary, I’ll be honest with you but (God) gave us confirmation after confirmation after confirmation that this is what he wanted us to do,” McKee said.

When they set out in a rental car, baby in tow, Jazzmine and Phillip knocked door to door asking if anyone at the home needed baby supplies. They would often meet someone who spoke just enough English to direct them to a neighborhood with small children.

“We literally would go around the city. One person would send us to another home that had need, and we would just hand out diapers and pumps,” she said. “We did it door-knocking style, almost like an outreach.”

Through that process, the couple visited five cities in five days — Jayuya, Utuado, Loiza, La Perla and Bayamon — until they ran out of supplies. At each home, they gave the families six cloth diapers, typically enough to get through a day, McKee said.

One month later, she still struggles to put into words what she saw. She described the houses as “shanties,” many of them falling apart. Nearly everyone they encountered was without electricity, a fact that shocked McKee.

“We’re talking about eight months post-hurricane,” she said.

In one neighborhood, two families were sharing one generator and each had brought their refrigerator outside so both could reach the power source.

Phillip gave the father of one family the supplies, and the man pulled him into an embrace. He began to cry.

That moment, that family, will likely stick with her forever, McKee said.

In Loiza, Jazzmine, Phillip and Mateuax visited a children’s home.

“It was there we saw the worst devastation,” she said.

Jazzmine asked the director what they needed as far as supplies for the future and was given a list, written in Spanish. Looking at the children and thinking of her own four at home, she knew she would be coming back to Puerto Rico.

The couple has another trip planned for August. They plan on staying for two weeks. This time, they’re bringing all five of their children. The children’s home will be one of the first places they stop and help.

“My children need to see this,” McKee said.

Once back in the States, McKee went to a local Chic-Fil-A to use its WiFi to try to translate the list given to her by the children’s home director. Once again, McKee said, God was involved.
The cashier spoke Spanish. His manager gave him a break as he sat across from McKee and translated the list.

“It’s just little things,” she said. “Everybody is chipping in to make this happen.”

While they were in Puerto Rico, McKee frequently posted updates to her Facebook page. If a Mississippi family donated a “sentimental” baby item, she tried to take a picture of that item with the Puerto Rico family. She then shared that photo with the family in the States.

The social media updates helped spur more interest and donations for their August trip. Local merchants are donating items as well, such as cases of bug spray and diaper cream.
They haven’t yet embarked on their second trip, but the couple is already planning a third trip.

“The need is great there,” she said. “This is where we feel led to do something, this is where our minds are.”

Nine months after Maria hit the island, repairs continue on the U.S. territory and thousands remain without power. The official death toll has been 64, but earlier this month, a Harvard mortality analysis estimated 4,645 deaths.