15 days ago, Milton Soto was the General Manager of one of the Caribbean’s top craft beer destinations, La Taberna Lúpulo, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Now, Soto struggles with daily decisions affecting the well-being of thousands while running a newly created not-for-profit, Island People Recovery.
Soto’s life changed on September 20th when Hurricane Maria made landfall. As the second major hurricane to batter Puerto Rico in a two week period, Maria destroyed the entire power grid for the island and left the majority of the populace without access to other basic infrastructure like running water, cell service, passable roads.
Television and radio were among the first services to go offline. By that first evening of the storm, Soto only got reception from one station, WAPA Radio. As the evening progressed, radio DJs fielded call after call from Puerto Ricans trapped in dire circumstances, pleading for help. Around 4 a.m., Soto had had enough, and decided to take action.
“I packed my stuff up, loaded up water, got in my Jeep, called my buddy Andrew Wilkie, and we were off to help,” Soto told Neat Pour. The only problem was that the duo did not know where to begin. So, they headed toward a staging point for rescue boats that they had heard about on WAPA.
Maria had different plans for the journey. The storm had rendered the roads nearly impassable with downed branches, abandoned vehicles, and floodwaters frequently obstructing the route. At one such roadblock, Soto found 27 people stranded on the second floors of houses flanking the street. The ground floors were flooded out with a mix of floodwater, dead animals, and debris topped with petroleum.
Wilkie and Soto hopped out of the jeep into the chest high muck and began helping. “I waded into an destroyed house, ripped out a fridge, emptied the insides, popped off the doors, and made a boat,” he explained. “We floated all of the people plus 12 pets to dry land and got them water and supplies.”
At first, it continued like that—every day, Soto and his friends would pack a SUV full of water and head out looking for people to help. Finding those in need of help was not difficult. The devastation was everywhere and drinking water was nowhere to be found. However, it soon became clear that amidst such sheer chaos, some relief structure was forming.
Soto learned about a collaborative effort spearheaded by legendary chef José Andrés’ foundation, World Central Kitchen (WCK). The foundation teamed up with José Enrique’s group #ChefsForPuertoRico to cook over 100,000 meals for hungry Puerto Ricans. As a lifelong service industry worker, Soto’s skills lended a perfect way to help. “I’m doing the same thing that I’ve done at work my entire life, but this is much more fulfilling.”
So, the barman located a WCK kitchen, showed up, and asked what he could do to help. A WCK cook told him that they desperately needed aluminum foil. Soto spent the next few hours scouring the empty shelves of reopened grocery stores until he found foil. He bought as much foil as he could transport and delivered it to the WCK. Next, he was asked to move a towering mound of weeks old garbage. Undeterred by the hovering flies or the smell of rot, Soto assembled his team and together they spent the day loading the refuse into a pickup truck destined for the dump.
Soon, Soto created a role for his group delivering WCK’s food to remote areas. He explained that while more urban areas like San Juan received some measure of relief, people in smaller towns have largely been ignored by federal agencies. They are still struggling to find food and water weeks after the hurricane’s landfall. Over the past few days, Soto’s team provided clean up and ran food, water, and supplies to places not mentioned on the nightly news or the itinerary for government relief missions—places like Playita, Gurabo, Yabucoa, Toa Baja, Ponce, Cabo Roja, and Rincón. The group expects to deliver over 2,000 meals in the next week alone.
These trips are the start of a much greater task. 89% of Puerto Rico still has no power, and nearly half of the island lacks running water. Back in San Juan, Soto’s bar, La Taberna Lúpulo, managed to rig three beer coolers to a small generator, set up a grill to make kebabs, and reopened in a limited capacity. However, Soto is not slinging beers anymore.
Using cellular internet and portable generators, he managed to file the proper paperwork to register his group Island People Relief as an official not-profit and get a website up. “15 days ago, this was not part of the plan. I never thought I would do any sort of philanthropy,” the founder said. “But, I had to say, ‘Screw it. We’re doing this.’” Soto stressed the importance of taking the task seriously and running the NGO like a business during the years of recovery that will follow. He also noted that 100% of their revenue will go directly to relief.
IPR’s next project will be a drive to reopen a storm damaged school in Yabucoa, one of the hardest hit municipalities. “We want to create momentum to return to a routine; that’s how we get society back to normal,” Soto elaborated. “Kids need to learn and parents need time to get water and food.”
IPR needs help. Donations can be made through their GoFundMe page. “All I’m asking is if everyone can just donate $20, the cost of two three drinks.” The list of needs is long, including drinkable water, water filters, chainsaws, leaf blowers, generators, gas cans, formula, baby wipes, and diapers. Soto can be reached at [email protected].