Rapid Response

Weeks After Hurricane Maria Hit, and Puerto Rico's Recovery Efforts Still Need Your Help

A lot more needs to be done.

by Alice Rowsome
Oct 11 2017, 4:30pm

People are dying in this country," Carmen Yulín Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, said at a news conference on September 30. "I am begging, begging anyone that can hear us, to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy."

Ten days earlier, Hurricane María, the fifth-strongest storm ever to hit the U.S., a powerful Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds, made direct landfall on Puerto Rico, splitting the entire island in two and drowning it with a feet of rain. What's happened in the aftermath of the storm was truly catastrophic for Puerto Rico. The island's infrastructure was left severely crippled, already damaged by Hurricane Irma, which had passed across Puerto Rico just weeks earlier, and with no power or phone service, the island was virtually cut off from the outside world and received very little support.

Despite President Donald Trump's controversial comments and actions about the government's successes in the aftermath of the hurricane, officials in Puerto Rico, like Cruz, who quickly ended up taking charge amid the devastating situation, disagree.

Ten days after her calls for help, Cruz still sees "no help [on] the horizon" for Puerto Rico, where the situation remains critical. "Power collapses in San Juan hospital with 4 patients now being transferred out. Have requested support from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency]. NOTHING!" Cruz tweeted on October 8. "The Hospital had requested support from FEMA and no response. Oh sorry they are collecting data…"

The mayor's perspective is one shared by many on the ground.

"The response has been lukewarm at best," Robert Becker, a resident and aid organizer based in the island of Vieques, just off Puerto Rico echoed in a conversation with VICE Impact. "The group I am working with, ViequesLove, has a completely citizen funded GoFundMe base."

Hit particularly hard, Vieques was left in ruins. ViequesLove, which Becker supports, was set up minutes after the storm by residents to support local's most urgent needs.

"We set up calling centres in the north side and south side [of the island] where residents could call their loved ones. The very first day the third man in line collapsed in my arms because he could finally let his daughter know that he was alive," Becker recalled. And for the past two days, they have also been trying to fly in generator to power the hospital, where the lack of oxygen tanks or the capacity to produce them, and no steady supply of diesel for temporary generators, continually threatens patients needing dialysis, respiratory machines and operations.

And while, ViequesLove has been overwhelmed with support from individuals, Becker explained, that they are still "three or four zeros short of what it's going to take to rebuild the island."

Streets flooded and phone lines destroyed, Hurricane María left residents without power and no telecomm service. While communication challenges made it tough for residents trying to get in touch with their families, it also threatened to pose a challenge to NGO delivering emergency aid.

"Communication and coordination have been the major obstacles since Irma hit two weeks before María," Michael Fernández Frey, director of Caras con Causa, a local Puerto Rican NGO assisting to rebuild the communities and coordinating (CR) told VICE Impact.

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Developed five days prior to and launched the day María hit, CR is a one of a kind platform currently being used by 18 local NGOs across Puerto Rico that gathers and makes available information on post-disaster communities' needs in order to facilitate relief efforts.

"We have been able to gather info on 30 communities from all around Puerto Rico in spite of several enormous challenges," Fernández Frey explained. And while the information gathered by CR is used to help distribute aid where it is most needed, Fernández Frey is also able to tell VICE Impact, based on the data collected, that "there is thirst and hunger throughout Puerto Rico, regardless of official statements."

Six days after VICE Impact called readers to sign this petition to demand that President Trump and the Department of Homeland Security waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico -- a law that imposes shipping costs on the U.S. island -- to help rebuild after the hurricane destroyed the island's infrastructure and economy, President Trump authorised the waiver. And the petition supported by VICE Impact, calling Defense Secretary James Mattis, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and President Trump to send Navy Hospital Ship, the USNS Comfort, an incredible resource for people in need of medical care to Puerto Rico, was also successful. But the waver was only temporary. The Department of Homeland Security allowed it to expire, meaning the return to higher shipping costs will do the opposite of helping Puerto Rico climb out of economic devastation.

Obviously a lot more needs to be done.

"The spirit of community and resourcefulness of the people of Puerto Rico has been remarkable—neighbours helping neighbours and helping others before helping themselves," Greg Ramm, Vice-President for Humanitarian Response at Save The Children, which is providing both immediate assistance and long-term aid to children, youth and their families in Puerto Rico, told VICE Impact. "But the U.S. Government needs to deploy additional logistical resources help distribute supplies and help people recover. The distribution of basics necessities to remote areas remains inadequate and the specific needs of children is too often an afterthought," Ramm added.

And then some. "Moving forward, us in the Caribbean nations and the world have to get accustomed to climate change. Not only because of the weather anomalies that are going on but because it's a smarter investment," Becker added. "No one on this island is going to debate climate change. I've been talking to people that have been here [Puerto Rico] for six or seven decades. They tell me that although there have been hurricanes coming and going, none have been like this."

Hurricane María recovery efforts are still very much underway. Find out how you can support them .

The Climate Justice Alliance has also called for a national day of action on Wednesday, October 11th, to demand that Congress pass an immediate federal aid package designed to help rebuild Puerto Rico. It also includes local awareness events and a call to sign a petition to repeal the Jones Act that will be sent to Congress.

Also, stay up to date on what your local leaders are doing to reduce climate change and its possible effects on more harmful storms. The Sierra Club is leading a campaign to get mayors to commit to transitioning their towns and cities from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energy. Here's how you can encourage your mayor to join more than 150 other cities in switching to 100 percent green energy.