Much more remains to be done in Puerto Rico

by Jose DeJesus
(Originally published on AFT Voices)

It was about four years since I had been home to Puerto Rico. I went back to be a part of a disaster relief team. The damage caused by Hurricane Maria is overwhelming; it’s so widespread, it takes you aback. I had done relief work but nothing on the scale of a disaster like this. We landed in San Juan and got right to work.

One of my earliest assignments was at a stadium in Rio Grande where the Federal Emergency Management Agency was collecting applications; we were there to set up a clinic. When we arrived, there was a line of people about a mile long in the sweltering heat. We immediately received two patients in desperate need of attention due to dehydration and insufficient nourishment; we ended up rushing one patient to the hospital in a pickup truck.

The really revealing part of the whole experience was that FEMA was there but they were only collecting applications; they weren’t giving out water or food.
It was a terrible moment for the people of Puerto Rico as far as I could see, and this kind of obliviousness was a theme that I saw repeatedly on the island.

There were eight teams of workers consisting of healthcare workers and other trades. We started each day at 7 a.m. and usually worked until 9 p.m. with no breaks for two weeks. Working for 14 days straight felt more like two months, but I was happy to do what I could.

We could see that San Juan was on the road to recovery, so my team concentrated on getting out of San Juan and into more remote areas or hill country areas like Utuado where people haven’t seen any help from the government or FEMA. In one of the pueblos, we were in a place where members of the community gathered called the cancha (court), and we saw a note posted from FEMA asking people to call or go online to get help. It didn’t make any sense. We were working with people who have no electricity, no communications or cellphone coverage, and it hurt to see that this is the message they got; it was disheartening. Nearly everyone we talked to in these small villages said they had not seen or heard from FEMA in their area.

One thing we knew we could do was to educate people, especially about the water situation. Leptospirosis is a real danger there, so whenever we saw someone taking water from a waterfall or river, we’d stop and give them instruction on how to sanitize the water. People would tell us they’ve been drinking from a waterfall all of their life and never got sick. But what they don’t understand is that the hurricane changed things; animals have died and waters have become contaminated. Delivering the message was extremely important to prevent an outbreak.

We got private donations from doctors in the San Juan area to provide medication, food, water and supplies to the people in need. We were able to prevent some pretty serious diseases and health situations from becoming worse.

We hit everywhere we could; and on one hand it felt good, but I left with the feeling that the devastation is so widespread throughout the island that much more remains to be done.
The thing is that we were 300 or so people who had gone to Puerto Rico on a flight that was donated by United Airlines. Sometimes it felt like the work needed there was so much more than we could do, but we did whatever we could with what we had. It really hurt me to return home to my comfortable air-conditioning, clean running water and refrigeration knowing that my people are going to suffer for a very long time. I was an engineer in my previous life, and I know enough to know that it will be at least a year before electrical service reaches all of the remote areas. This is not something that is going to be taken care of overnight.

This was a tremendous experience for me. If I had the time and resources, I would still be there. This was my first humanitarian mission as a nurse, and I’m totally hooked. I need to do more and I want to spread the word. This hurricane was such a traumatic experience for people; you could see it in their eyes. The people who we met were kind, sincere and supported each other. We experienced numerous examples of selflessness as we offered food and supplies to families that told us, “We are OK, but my neighbor could use some help.” We became part of a lot of families. I know they won’t forget us, and we will never forget them.

Jose DeJesus is a native-born Puerto Rican. He is a registered nurse in a medical stepdown unit at Inspira Health Network in New Jersey and a member of Health Professionals and Allied Employees.