In September 2017, Hurricane Maria produced some of the best surf the East coast has seen in years. But at the same time, it also carved a swath of destruction through the Caribbean, devastating numerous islands, including Puerto Rico.
The disaster was widely publicised in the media, as was the political aftermath, as relief aid and recovery didn’t appear in Puerto Rico as quickly as would be expected for a US territory.
Five months on, the media has gone largely silent on the situation in the Caribbean, and many people have forgotten that there is still a disaster zone in many areas just off the Gulf Coast of the US.
Fortunately, organizations like Waves For Water are leading the efforts to help the area recover. We sat down with W4W’s Robert McQueen to find out what the latest situation is in the Caribbean, and what the rest of us can do to help.
It's been five months since Hurricane Maria, and for the most part the media has forgotten about Puerto Rico. But the island is still struggling to recover. What is the current situation in Puerto Rico?
It ranges across the island. In some areas life has returned to a version of normal, primarily in the large city centers, and mostly in San Juan.
If you move to the west coast, central power is still just a dream, as the sound of generators owns the usually quiet nights. There has been an increase in the demand for donated meals, which is a huge warning flag, as the population on the island is still decreasing due to migration to the US.
This highlights a major underlying issue that the island is nowhere near ready to support the most basic needs
This highlights a major underlying issue that the island is nowhere near ready to support the most basic needs. The entire island is still under a boil water advisory due to bacterial contamination, and this becomes even more of a challenge when your ability to boil water is an issue.
What people fail to understand is that Maria not only decimated the existing infrastructure on the island, it also highlighted just how broken both the infrastructure and government systems were prior to the storm. Maria exasperated already damning issues, so the thought process that Puerto Rico would be ready after six months of relief efforts is ridiculous. The real work is just getting started.
It seems like there were a lot of conflicting stories about how the US government/FEMA was dealing with the devastation and relief efforts in Puerto Rico, which is actually a territory of the US, which means that all the residents there are US citizens. What was your assessment of the relief efforts? Were NGOs able to step up and fill any gaps in the needs there, or are there still major gaps that need filling?
That is a pretty large question, so I will try to be concise. Disaster relief work is challenging when you execute it in the continental US.
Working on an island-based territory is a monster of a problem, and that is just from a logistical stand point. When you reach into the bureaucratic and political side of things, it becomes a nightmare. FEMA was not prepared for the challenges they faced, and for that matter neither was PREMA (PRs FEMA counterpart).
Disaster relief work is challenging when you execute it in the continental US
I was in San Juan during Maria and met with PREMA and FEMA leadership immediately following the storm. The standard processes they were prepared to implement simply didn’t fit the problem. From the acquisition of fuel and water trucks by FEAM to the inability to actually put certified drivers in the seats to use them, there were a lot of problems. It was the same thing I have seen in countless disasters: Slow bureaucratic processes and limited flexibility hampers the speed and effectiveness of the response, and costs lives. So all in all the GOV relief efforts missed the mark on multiple levels.
When you look at NGOs in disaster response, you really have two types: those that wait and rely on GOV guidance, and those that do not. This goes to the nature of Waves For Water, and guerilla humanitarianism in general. We do our best to support the systems in place, but we will never let that prevent us from getting to those in need.
Even saw a young army officer that found a legal way to get a portion of his own operational fuel to those that needed it
That is what happened in PR. When GOV guidance and control stalled, so did the response of many of the NGOs and other agencies. But smaller NGOs that weren’t tied to those processes went out and got to work. I even saw a young army officer that found a legal way to get a portion of his own operational fuel to those that needed it. Those that were willing to innovate, take risks and bypass the bureaucracy saved the day. Everyone else partied their hearts out at the Sheraton until FEMA told them what to do.
When we sent our first team to the west coast (four days after Maria) we were the first relief that side of the island had seen, and that was a trend for us as we worked across the island. We were still hitting places that hadn’t seen any relief three weeks after Maria passed.
What role has W4W taken in the relief efforts there in Puerto Rico?
I think that role is one of inadvertent leadership. How that role has been leveraged has shifted as the efforts have evolved. In the beginning, we were more or less a rouge leadership.
Initially, we focused on getting our program out to as many people as possible, regardless of restrictions—and encouraging others to do the same. As things progressed, we deliberately focused on trying to connect the right solution to the right need, in order to have a better impact. So we took the role of a collaborative force.
An example is bringing TESLA to a remote water pump that had no power so they could bring it online and off the grid. Another example is working within our local network to bypass shipping roadblocks and bring medical supplies from donors in the States to hospitals and clinics that needed them most.
Now, as we start to look at the long-term play for this effort, we have taken a more formal role, partnering with different organisations and entities where our program works to supplement theirs. For example, we are working with Departmento De La Comida, an organisation working to rebuild local sustainable agriculture on the island. As they rebuild and seed these farms, we will build rain-catchment and water depots to support the farmer and his workers. In the end, we believe in sticking to our core skillset and focus. Done right, we can play a large role in rebuilding Puerto Rico.
It is easy for us to forget about the needs and devastation in disaster areas after the media hype dies down, but the reality is that these areas struggle for years after a natural disaster. What can we as individuals do to help the relief efforts there in Puerto Rico?
Look for organisations that are out doing great work (All Hands and Hearts, Departmento De La Comida, Ricky Martin Foundation, Waves For Water, etc.) and support them. Continue to raise awareness. In the 24-hour news cycle, PR is old news, so keeping the story going will have an impact beyond a simple monetary donation.
It is also easy to distance ourselves emotionally from the loss that those in disaster areas suffer, without realizing that virtually every place on the planet is susceptible to some sort of natural disaster threat, and it's really just a matter of time until our homes are put at risk. Is there anything the average person can do to be prepared for a disaster such as this?
Have a plan and be prepared. I always have food (MREs, Mountain House, canned Goods), water (usually just a filter), shelter (ability to protect from the elements, such as a tarp, fire starting materials, etc.)…enough to last three to four days.
A rechargeable light with a small solar panel to recharge the light and your phone is helpful, as is a medical kit (stop major bleeds, prevent shock, provide any required medicine). It is essential to be prepped for medical. We spent two days trying to track down diabetic testing strips after Maria—it’s the little things that can get you.
What about surfers who are considering chasing waves to Puerto Rico this winter? Has the island recovered to the point that it's prepared to handle tourists? And for those who decide to travel to Puerto Rico to surf, are there opportunities to do a combination surf/humanitarian trip where they can help with the relief efforts in some way?
Puerto Rico is still amazing, and surfers will still love it—they travel better than most! Less power and reduced amenities out near some of the best breaks won’t even phase them.
And every day, that gets better. San Juan is set to handle tourists
And every day, that gets better. San Juan is set to handle tourists, and you will probably see a more engaging side than when its packed with nothing but tourists. There is a ton of work to do, so the opportunity to travel and do some good is definitely there, you just have to find the right need.
Obviously Puerto Rico is not the only place currently recovering from a disaster, and not the only place that W4W is actively aiding in relief efforts. What other disaster areas do you see as major priorities at the moment?
We are currently actively working in Ecuador, Peru, and Indonesia, among other places. Right now we are focusing on the emerging crisis in Cape Town, as well as trying to find a way to have an impact into both the Rohingya refugee crisis and the ongoing cholera epidemic in Yemen.
To learn more about Waves For Water and what you can do to help, go HERE