Middlebury couple are moving to hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico, urge aid to island

MIDDLEBURY — Soon-to-be Puerto Rican residents and current Middlebury residents Andy and Bronia Van Benthuysen have a message for their current friends and neighbors on behalf of their future neighbors:
Please help.
The Van Benthuysens, undeterred by the devastation Hurricane Maria unleashed on Puerto Rico in late September, plan to retire to that U.S. territory in April.
Before then Andy and Bronia will make weeklong November and January trips to the home they own on the Caribbean island, bringing with them needed supplies for Maria’s victims.
In the meantime, the couple hopes that other Vermonters will join them in donating whatever they can to help an island that two weeks after Maria passed over still lacked power over 95 percent of its territory; faces critical shortages of food, water, medicine and other supplies; has suffered major damage to its roads, bridges and waste disposal systems; and has seen countless homes and buildings destroyed.
Because their home in Moca, in northwestern Puerto Rico, and its solar panels survived the storm, the Van Benthuysens have been able to get first-hand reports from their tenants. And other than the good news about their property, those reports have not been reassuring, said Bronia, a Glens Falls, N.Y., native whose family moved to Forestdale when she was 12.
“Just from what my tenants are telling me, it’s worse than what you’re seeing on the news,” said Bronia, 56. “Some towns are just totally devastated. Our house was spared, thank God, but there are a lot of roads that were washed out. And people just can’t get through. They can’t get to gas. They can’t get into town to grocery stores, and grocery stores are pretty much wiped out.”
It took a while for the Van Benthuysens to get any news from their tenants because the local cell phone tower was blown over, and travel was a challenge.
“They had to drive into town and search for a signal,” said Andy, 61. “It took at least a week.”
Not knowing what happened was tough.
“It was a long week,” Bronia said.
Finally, they got the word, said Andy, a South Burlington native whose family moved to Jericho when he was 12.
“They lost a few trees, but other than that it came out all right. Our tenants are fine. It’s an all-concrete house, flat concrete roof,” he said. “There are mountains around us. We’re kind of in a little bowl. I think that kind of protected us as well.”
Life wasn’t easy for their tenants, with power out to the island water system that served them and thus no running water, but they were lucky compared to most on the island, and they were able to help their family members and friends.
But others they and their tenants know did not fare so well.
“I cried a lot of tears the last couple weeks,” Bronia said. “The woman we bought our house from bought a house in Utuado (in more central Puerto Rico), and Utuado was very hard hit. Her house is, she thinks, gone, she doesn’t know for sure. But her uncle’s house, who is next door, was destroyed, floated away in the mudslide. She lives in Virginia now, but her home and her tenants were there, and she hasn’t heard from them. We heard from some folks we know in Cabo Rojo (along the western coast), and their house was destroyed.”
The Van Benthuysens bought their home in Puerto Rico in 2010, 10 years after they met and nine years after they married. In 2000 Andy was a self-employed plumber then living in Fairfax with a steady side gig playing bass guitar with “Jimmy T and the Cobras.”
Bronia had owned the Brandon restaurant Miss B’s Kitchen for many years after working at the former Brandon Training School until it closed.
How did they meet?
“I played in a band, and she was good friends with the keyboard player’s wife,” Andy said.
   ANDY AND BRONIA Van Benthuysen plan to retire in April to a home they own in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. In the meantime they are doing what they can to help their friends and neighbors in the U.S. territory and are urging others to help also.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
They married in 2001, and in 2006 Bronia sold her restaurant and cooked at Steve’s Park Diner in Middlebury for almost a decade. She took other cooking jobs, but decided after three decades of restaurant work to change directions, and she has been doing respite care work.
Andy for the past 17 years has worked as a state buildings master plumber, responsible for territory from New Haven to Bennington, with an office in Middlebury.
After a few years of marriage they discussed retirement.
“We started talking about it and decided the way we were going our only retirement plan was to work until we died, and that didn’t sound like a plan,” Andy said.
In 2006 friends invited them on a Caribbean cruise, and their plans crystallized.
“We kind of fell in love with the islands when we were down there. And right afterward we sold the restaurant and we started making plans and looking at the different islands and the possibility of moving down there,” Andy said.  
In 2010 they spent $120,000 for their property outside of Moca, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fully functioning solar array, room for Andy to set up a recording studio, and annual property taxes of $82.
“I’ll be able to retire at 62 and we’ll be able to live on the little I get from the state and Social Security. And we’ll be pretty comfortable down there,” Andy said. “There will be no electrical bills because of the solar, and no heating bills.”
They are not concerned it is completely off the grid, even after Maria. 
“We’re Vermonters. We know how to grow things,” Bronia said.
But they are concerned about their fellow American citizens in Puerto Rico.
“The biggest worry is food, and getting them water. I can’t imagine. You survive this horrible thing, and now two weeks later you still can’t get food. And without power you can’t use you ATM card, and people are only accepting cash, and people aren’t that well off to begin with. How much cash can they have had?” Andy said. “So I really worry about their survival.”
Bronia last week took baby formula and mosquito spray to Cape Air in Rutland, which she said through this past Friday was offering to fly supplies for free to the island. Jet Blue might still be making that offer, said Bronia, who also donated to Save the Children, which she said is now focusing on Puerto Rico.
“There are a lot of companies doing great things. I won’t talk about what the government’s doing, or not doing, but there are a lot of great things,” she said.
They noted the west end of Puerto Rico has been overlooked, although they were happy to see last week the airport near the northwestern city of Aguadilla had been reopened.
“They just two days ago declared the west end a disaster zone,” said Andy on Thursday. “They hadn’t even declared it a disaster zone until 12 days after the fact. They hadn’t sent anything out here. There were no communications, so they had no way of knowing.”
In their trips in November and January before the permanent move in April they will pack as much aid as possible along with their luggage.
“We’ll stay in touch with our tenants to find out what we can do best, what we can bring down, what do they need,” Andy said.
The Van Benthuysens said nothing that has happened has made them doubt their plans.
“We are still going on April 9. We will help those good people build that island … They are incredible people there,” Bronia said, adding, “The phrase they’re using right now is, ‘Se levante.’ We will rise. And they will. I have no doubt.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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