Aftermath of Maria from two Puerto Rican Leaders
Saturday, Dec. 2nd.
I recently spent six days on a relief mission in Puerto Rico, distributing water filters and solar USB chargers. I was assisted by Art Malm. Both of us volunteer for Engineers without Borders USA, although this was not an EWB trip.
On Friday night I developed a head cold with a cough. On Saturday, December 2nd, I felt terrible in the night and decided to stay in bed and let Art do this day’s mission. When I got up and had a coffee I felt a little better, and am glad I decided to go with Art.
Mariela Jorge, Executive Director of Ronald McDonald House Charities Puerto Rico, and Javier Jiménez,, Director of the Puerto Rico Primary Care Association Network, picked us up at 7:30am. After rearranging our gear to fit in Javier’s Subaru, we took off for Barranquitas.
The drive was made worse by the lack of traffic lights. Eventually, we came to a road that had completely washed away.
On the West side of Barranquitas there was another landslide.
Here on PR 143, the road is completely washed out, isolating one home.
Javier backtracked a little bit and took us to the Emergency Management center in Barranquitas where Shirley Santiago Shirley Santiago, Secretary of the Office of Emergency Management, answered our questions for about an hour and a half.
This is a summary of our conversation with Shirley and on the road to distribute our goods.
On the way up, I asked Mariela about the water in Barranquitas. She said the water pressure was intermittent. When there is no water, the government may provide water or people may get some from community wells. People want to filter water because the Department of Health is still recommending boiling or filtering. There has been an extensive mass media campaign asking people to boil or filter water — which is probably the reason there have been on epidemics of water-borne diseases. Sometimes Barranquitas loses pressure, and when it comes back the water is brown or “tastes like pipes.”
Today you can ship effectively to Puerto Rico, unlike the first days after Maria. Some organizations gave away a standard “shakeout kit” containing a solar lantern and a Sawyer filter. Today, it is most effective to give money, allowing NGOs to order what they need to meet demand.
Javier worked with AmeriCares, Direct Relief and International Medical Corps, and thought they were most effective with their extremely rapid deployment and immediate delivery of the most critically needed supplies. He said the Red Cross overhead was 35%, which seems very high. He recommends you give money to someone you can trust.
Javier: “The Maria crisis keeps evolving. At the beginning, many supplies ran out. ATMs did not work, so even if you were being paid, if you did not have cash on hand you had a crisis.”
We drove past a major landslide on PR 152 into Barranquitas. The highway was cut down to one lane by it, but repairs were underway.
Javier: “There was criticism of the delay of Operation Blue Roof. Rains after Maria damaged many possessions. The winning contractor of Operation Blue Roof contract could not supply enough tarps.”
Mariela: “It is a good time to come for tourism; it will really help Puerto Rico. The surfing in the San Juan region and the West is good. Ponce has water and power and a nice Museum, as well as beaches.”
Rob: Beaches in San Juan, Naguabo, and Arecibo were clean and almost deserted. This beautiful little town of Húcares, Naguabo, on PR 3 near Naguabo had no grid power, but bars and resaurants were fully stocked and powered by generators.
Mariela and Javier: “Maria meant that many people paid weekly lost their jobs. Tourism and everything else has been slowed down. Even lawyers could not find work because courts were closed.”
Art: “There is good and bad in everything.”
Mariela and Javier: “Most deaths are from people who didn’t receive medical care after Maria. For example, there was a major shortage of bottled oxygen.
Many wood houses were structurally destroyed. Concrete houses survived but almost everyone got water in their house. Everybody’s hands hurt for days after Maria because of all the mopping and toweling they did.”
Javier: “Mental health issues occur every day. Depression, suicidal thoughts — no work, no money. At first, no one could get messages to loved ones. On day 4 or 5, I started going out to the mountains. I collected numbers and notes and then when I got back to San Juan I spent an hour or two making calls, possibly to 100 people, to tell them their loved ones were safe.”
“AM Radio was very important to people for communication. While the hurricane was happening and several days after, only one radio station was able to produce and transmit.”
Mariel and Javier: “We cannot make an estimate of the number of people who have grid power in Barranquitas. There is power in supermarket and main part of town.”
When we passed by gas stations they were electrified (in Humacao at least one gas station was using a generator.)
Shirley: “Most of the town regained power the first week. Samaritan Purse brought 1300 Sawyer water filters. Many others brought in filters. There is need for more, perhaps 2,000 more. People like the filters, even though their water is chlorinated. There exists some level of distrust of government announcements, but likely to a greater extent most people simply do not where there water comes from and have adopted the “better safe than sorry approach”.
“During the storm with the loss of electrical power Baranquito lost its public water supply as well. No customers were served for the first two weeks.”
“There are three PRASA water sources in Baranquitas. At the time of the storm only one of the plants had a standby generator for when the power went out. This plant has operated reliably from the time diesel to run the generator became available. Unfortunately the one plant with the standby generator was not able to supply water to people in the hills surrounding the town.
“ Nonetheless within two weeks following Maria about half of Baranquito, about 17,000 people, had water in their homes and a central “oasis” in town was able to supply safe water to those without. A second well was provided a generator after the storm but theft of its battery rendered it unavailable for a time. The third well was located in an area where it was feared to be subject to contamination due to the flooding and was not being used on a routine basis.
Mariela: “Communication created problems with diesel and gasoline for businesses, first response centers, and private homes. It was hard to distribute diesel and gasoline to gas stations because nobody could report how much they had or needed.
Javier and Mariela bought us a nice lunch at a place Jessica recommended.
We then went with Jessica Febus and gave her 12 Sawyer water filters and 12 buckets. We gave her 3 of that Anker panels and 2 Suaoki lanterns, and one Lifestraw. Jessica will distribute those items among people in need.
We gave the other Lifestraw Family (a smaller filter, for one family) to a man who pulled up, Freddie Colón. Slowly we made our way back. Traffic was bad due to construction repairing the roads and the lack of signals. It gave us a great chance to talk to Javier and Mariela.
We then got back into town where we visited Ronald McDonald House. It was a very pleasant place; the color was quite beautiful — a nice little oasis of peace. Generally .Ronald McDonald House has 10 families rotating in as their children need medical care in San Juan.
Mariela told me that Ronald McDonald House Charities of Puerto Rico lost $250,000 in regular donations due to Maria. I have written a separate article about how to help Puerto Rico today:
Helping make up this lost revenue is a great way to directly aid families with seriously ill children in Puerto Rico through a reputable charity.
I would like to thank Mariela, Shirley, and Javier for spending a day assisting us in our aid and amateur journalism.
(This work was supported by the Presidential Innovation Fellows Foundation through a grant from the Michael J. Reed and Kristin Toner Reed Foundation.)