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SALT LAKE CITY — After landing in Puerto Rico to give aid to hurricane victims, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and a group of state volunteers came across an elderly couple in one of the territory’s hardest-hit regions.
The couple, Cox said, had run out of money after spending $400 a month for gas to run a generator they shared with their neighbors.
“The night before (the Utah volunteers got there) she said she prayed that God would send us some help,” Cox said during a phone interview with KSL Newsradio from an airport in Puerto Rico Monday morning. “We showed up there and we able to get her a solar-power generator so she didn’t have to spend any more money on gasoline, and were able to give them some food and water. … To see the tears in their eyes and the smiles on their faces — there are just no words.”
That was one of the many memories Cox holds as a result of the trip. He was one of about 45 volunteers who visited the territory for several days, handing out water, clothing, food, hiking supplies, solar-powered lamps, lights and generators to some of the hardest-hit and poorest communities affected after hurricanes hit the territory in August and September.
The worst, Hurricane Maria, struck the island as a strong Category 4 storm, leaving dozens dead and most of the territory without power.
In all, Cox called the five-day trip a success and estimated more than a thousand families were aided on the trip.
“We were able to accomplish more than I expected,” he said. “We had 40 volunteers, we had two big trucks, a huge warehouse full of goods that the state of Utah donated.”
The group, Light Up Puerto Rico, had raised $400,000 to purchase the supplies for those in need. Volunteers included Gov. Gary Herbert’s son, Brad, who served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the territory. He said prior to the trip that the devastation broke his heart. In fact, Cox said many of those volunteering had either grown up in Puerto Rico or served an LDS mission there.
Once there, the group toured the devastation. They saw roofs and walls missing from homes and lines on the walls showing the water level during the storm. Some areas hadn’t had power for three months.
Cox said it was hard to describe many Puerto Ricans' situation. However, the residents there were appreciative and also befuddled on why a group of a few dozen people would volunteer all the way from Utah.
While Cox's group returned to Utah Monday, another Utah group is expected to return in a few weeks. Cox added that groups will travel to Puerto Rico through at least March. He said after meeting the people, he hopes to return to the territory with his family in the future.
Cox added he hopes Utahns and others will not forget Puerto Rico as it has fallen off the news cycle in recent weeks, but noted the area’s residents aren’t helpless either.
“They’re working very hard; they’re strong, they’re powerful, they’re resilient and they’re working together as a community in spite of the politics most of the time,” he said. “They couldn’t care less with local or national politics, they’re just working to survive right now and they will.”
Contributing: Cleon Wall