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Months After Maria, Red Cross Still Helping in Puerto Rico

Months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the American Red Cross is there, helping people in need. Teams of Red Cross Disaster Assessment (DA) workers travel the island, finding residents who still need assistance.

Here is an example of their work:

VIRGINIA VOLUNTEER IN PUERTO RICO

Dr. Louisa Rodriguez, a medical doctor from Virginia and American Red Cross volunteer for the past 30 years, is no newcomer to the island. Her late husband was Puerto Rican and she participated in the responses to hurricanes Hugo and Georges in 1989 and 1998. She is on her way to Orocovis and Barranquitas, two municipalities in the center of Puerto Rico, to find out what the people there might need.

Her teammate is Erin McCarthy. Every day the two Disaster Assessment (DA) volunteers explore the island’s districts, including the most remote barrios and sectors, to collect information directly from the people affected by the disaster. It is thanks to the work of Red Cross DA colleagues that Red Cross services have been accurately targeted to those communities that need them the most.

“We work with the communities so we can understand the situation through their perspective”, Dr. Rodriguez explains. “More than 100 days after the disaster, our objective is to know how we can best keep helping them.” Has their situation gone back to what it was before the disaster? Is it better? Worse? Do they still need water? Food? Electricity? Have many people left the zone? Is it because they lost their job or so they could receive therapy elsewhere? These are just a few of the questions on the volunteers’ mind as they make their first stop by the house of a woman going about in her garden in Barrio Gato of Orocovis.

Flor Casiano informs them she has running water through the state’s water agency, but no electricity; that many people in her community are retired, or lost their job due to the hurricane, and that the most at risk are the elderly and the children. She says her community is partly moving forward, partly stuck, and bursts into tears after revealing that about half of the houses in her neighborhood were destroyed by the hurricane.

After comforting Casiano, Dr. Rodriguez learns it is not easy to find food for Casiano’s dogs in the area. So she runs to the car and comes back with a plastic bag full of dry pet food. Dr. Rodriguez’s trunk is always full of such thoughtful personal surprises. “I never leave a person without putting first a smile on their face”, she simply says.

DA volunteers gather information from a variety of sources: community leaders, business owners, people in the community, etc. In Orocovis, Louisa and Erin also interview Merida Colón and her niece Ada, who re-opened their store only a week ago. A big yellow water plant by the side of the road informs McCarthy that there is no running water in the sector.

The house next door, which was completely blown away by the hurricane, belonged to Irma’s granddaughter. Many staple food items are no longer available, or have become too expensive for this retired teacher. “My diet is completely out of balance. Fortunately the Red Cross has been very kind to us, she whispers.”

In Barranquitas, the Red Cross team must turn back several times as roads remain blocked by debris and bridges have collapsed. Here too, residents and the local economy have paid a high toll for the disaster. “It was difficult to get products for my community” says Ruben, who owns the only grocery store in the sector. In addition, buying fuel for the generator to keep fresh produce in the fridge more than doubled his monthly costs.

“I met a 96-year-old man with asthma in Cidra, whose house was destroyed”, Dr. Rodriguez recalls with a lot of emotion in her voice. “He had not had any medication or therapy for months as his doctor had left the island. We referred his case to Red Cross Health Services so he could receive a generator”. When the man told Dr. Rodriguez that he planned to give a party for his 100th birthday, she gave him her phone number and told him: “When that happens, I want you to call me so that I can come to the party and dance with you.”

INFORMATION HELPS RED CROSS SUPPORT RESIDENTS

Joe Busch, who supervises the Disaster Assessment team in Puerto Rico, explains that field interviews and data collection allow the Red Cross to “assess how the recovery process is changing so that it can better adapt the recovery efforts to the actual needs of the people”. Information is sent electronically from the field to headquarters and analyzed to inform the relevant services, like logistics and emergency supplies.

This helps the Red Cross know where to send the trucks, which supplies are needed in a particular neighborhood, or to avoid sending goods to communities that might not benefit from them. It also gives them real time information on the state of the roads and other infrastructure. This data is also shared with other partners, including FEMA, to collaborate more efficiently and avoid duplication.

About the American Red Cross:

The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

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