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Hurricane Maria One Year Later: “Unsung Success” or Complete Disaster?

Posted on September 20, 2018 by Catholic Charities Admin  |  Share

I Was There; I Know

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Catholic Charities NY and Estoy Con Puerto Rico liaison Teresa Santiago dissects whether the response  was an unsung success or disaster.  Pictured (L-R):Teresa Santiago, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan & Luz Tavarez.

By Teresa Santiago

As I watched the news last week and heard the assertion that the federal government's response to Hurricane Maria was "an incredible, unsung success," I almost flung my dinner plate at the television.  My stunned Yorkie, Isa, could not understand why I started pacing back and forth arguing with the TV. 

As someone who has been on three humanitarian trips to Puerto Rico since the hurricane hit, including serving on Governor’s Cuomo’s New York Stands with Puerto Rico delegation trip to PR in July 2018, I have seen first-hand the devastating effects this tragedy has taken on Puerto Rico and its people.  I can give testimony of the reality I experienced.

I have also been closely involved in responding to the losses caused by Hurricane Maria. As a founding member of Estoy Con Puerto Rico, (I am with Puerto Rico), a hurricane relief effort launched by Comité Noviembre and its consortium of Puerto Rican leaders, non- profit and business organizations, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York as fiscal conduit for this effort we have delivered much-needed assistance directly to non-profit and business organizations in Puerto Rico at the grassroots level.

Recent statements that reports documenting 2,975 deaths a result of the storm were just a Democratic plant to make others look bad, that the immediate count after the storm of between 69 to 18 deaths “did not go up by much,” are deplorable. The simple truth revealed by counting these mountains of corpses cannot counter the callousness, disrespect and falseness of statements. The Democratic Party didn’t commission the report on the death toll in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria. The study was commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico and conducted by researchers at George Washington University and the University of Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately, the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that left people, including the elderly and disabled, trapped without potable drinking water, electricity or even roofs over their heads, caused far more deaths than the hurricane-force winds themselves. As history has shown us through 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, people die from aftermath conditions. After the 9/11 terror attacks, people died later and continue to die from cancer and other respiratory illnesses caused by the inhalation of toxic dust.  As tribute they are added to the World Trade Center memorial confirming their death as a direct result of that infamous day.  Similarly, as documented in the George Washington University/University of Puerto Rican study, the deaths of people who had been on dialysis, on life support, on oxygen machines from a lack of electricity in the weeks after the storm, or waterborne illness after the storm from contaminated drinking-water sources were caused by Hurricane Maria.  

Contrary to trumped up praise for the government’s response in the year since the hurricane, administration officials and agencies with expertise in disaster response have acknowledged failure.  A report released in July by the Government Accountability Office revealed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, (FEMA), noted several mistakes in its response, including that FEMA

  • Underestimated how much food and water would be needed after the storm
  • Not enough Spanish-speaking aid workers were deployed to the island
  • FEMA was so overwhelmed with storms by the time Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and that more than half the workers it was deploying to disasters were known to be unqualified for the jobs they were doing in the field.

The blame also falls on the government of Puerto Rico.  Puerto Rico's government disaster relief effort before, during and after the hurricane completely failed.  By its own admission, it underestimated the devastating force of the hurricane, designing emergency plans for a Category 1.  Failing to follow the plans that were set coupled with the communications breakdowns led in my opinion to total chaos and paralyzation of humanitarian aid and services being provided on a timely basis.

So What Is the Reality?  I witnessed firsthand the overwhelming need in Puerto Rico during my three trips with Estoy con Puerto Rico and Catholic Charities NY. Our first 8-day humanitarian mission to Puerto Rico occurred December 11th – December 18th, 2017.  Our effort delivered over 4,000 bags of groceries; 200 bags per town to families plus other non-profits, churches and elderly residences we encountered throughout the island on our trip; enough food and to feed an estimated 20,000-25,000 people.

At the end of this mission several things became clear.  The situation in Puerto Rico was changing from a relief to a rebuilding effort and the people of Puerto Rico need the voice of all Americans and federal dollar and its assistance in its recovery. 

Our second humanitarian mission to Puerto Rico from August 1st – August 9th, 2018 took on a new charge and an important call to action.  As one of 52 participants of this trip, I did volunteer service throughout the island from planting trees and seeds at Siembra Tres Vidas in Aibonito, removing debris, gardening and patching roofs in Dorado/Vega Alta with Hunger Corp., assembling and delivering 400 backpacks with school supplies and books for their library to La Escuela Jesús Sanabria Cruz in Yabucoa, to distributing greatly needed items to 30 families in Comerio that still do not have electricity; to cleaning elderly homes and apartments with Ráfaga Solidaria in Orocovis, Naguabo and Aibonito.  I also volunteered at Feria de Salud: Feriarte: Arte, Salud y Cultura; a health, wellness and mental health fair with a culture and arts twist in the town plaza of Bayamón.

During this trip we also visited and presented grants and equipment to non-profit organizations and small businesses from funds raised through the Estoy con Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief effort.  The grants range from assisting small businesses and micro enterprises open for business again, to special programs created to help the community deal with mental health issues arising from the aftermath devastation of Hurricane María including depression and suicide prevention programs, to transforming areas of a facility into dormitories for displaced University of Puerto Rico students, assisting the forgotten elderly community and making donations to food pantries.

The Estoy Con Puerto Rico Effort assisted by Catholic Charities NY already raised over half a million dollars and over 80 nonprofit organizations, churches, small businesses and micro-enterprises received donations and grants.  Comité Noviembre selected organizations from proposals received from organizations and businesses and determined the amount of donations in the first two waves of funds distributions by devastation of area, loss of home/property, health issues and for basic human necessities.  As the need in Puerto Rico changed to rebuilding and long term solutions, the Estoy effort focused on organizations that were creating long term solutions in solar energy, water purification systems and health and mental health issues surfacing from post Hurricane Maria trauma.  Additionally, the effort focused on getting businesses back in operation to stimulate the economy.

Each of the organizations and businesses funded by the Estoy Con Puerto Rico effort provided proof of non-profit status or business registration certificate and by the end of the year will provide a full written report on what contributions were used for and the impact it had on the community.  Estoy Con Puerto Rico will complete its funding process at the end of the year.

What has become clear is that Puerto Rico’s recovery and rebuilding efforts after hurricane Maria are going to take years to accomplish. The devastation from the hurricane was the crippling blow to an island already $72 billon dollars in debt with a health care system in crisis, an island from which many of the able bodied have now fled and now left with the most vulnerable of the community, the poor and the elderly.

The reality is that Puerto Rico continues to be in crisis.

  • Blackouts remain common
  • Nearly 60,000 homes are covered by only makeshift roofs
  • 13 percent of municipalities lack stable phone or internet service yet still lack federal and local funding

Many of us experience a myriad of emotions, especially now, a full year since the hurricane hit, when we read disrespectful tweets and statements denying the true tragedy.  Our emotions range from total disbelief to anger.  It is time to channel those emotions into action. Stand up for truth. Provide real support

Donate to the Estoy Con Puerto Rico Effort

  • Checks should be made payable to Catholic Charities with “Estoy Con Puerto Rico” in the memo.
    • Click here, then Select “Tribute Gift Button”, then “In Honor of Button Choose “living” and type “Estoy con Puerto Rico” in the field reading “Person Honored”