Originally from Colombia, José Bueno spent 24 days on assignment in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Of the thousands deployed by the Red Cross to assist, here is his story, in his words.
When I saw the devastation in Puerto Rico after the Category 4 hurricane hit the island in late September, this deployment became deeply personal. Although I wasn’t born in Borinquen, I had visited Puerto Rico numerous times. I kept a journal of my activities starting from the day I packed my bag, which is where my journey begins.
September 28 – Tampa, FL
In case you are wondering, here is the anatomy of a disaster relief worker’s backpack: water purification filter, mosquito net, wet wipes, insect repellent, power bank, solar-powered cell phone charger, warm weather sleeping bag, plastic poncho, flash light and head light. All supplies must fit in the backpack.
September 29 – Atlanta, GA
I fly to Atlanta for an overview of the assignment where I met about 50 other Red Crossers on the same mission. We leave for San Juan in the morning, each of us eager to work.
September 30 – San Juan, Puerto Rico
I have been to Puerto Rico several times, and it has always been very green. As soon as we land, it strikes me that nearly 100 percent of the trees and bushes are down or stripped of their leaves and branches. One of my fellow Red Crossers on the flight takes me to see her uncle, who lives near the airport, and it is the same everywhere. No green. Her uncle needs to get fuel for his vehicle so he can take us to the Red Cross headquarters. We drive 3-4 miles looking for gas and must turn back for the airport because there is none to be found, and his tank is too low to drive any further.
October 1 -- La Isla del Encanto and Caguas
Today is day one of bulk supply distribution. There are 20-25 trucks full of supplies that will go out to all corners of the island. We are called “chasers” because we are assigned to follow a truck with about eight palettes of goods from the Red Cross -- things like water, fresh fruit, ready to eat meals, snack boxes, bleach and tarps for homes that lost their roofs. We called ourselves Team AYUDA which means “help.” We fed 1,084 people today.
October 2 - Rincón
Started at 6am and finished work at 10:30pm. I have worked in bulk distribution in several states and can tell you that people in Puerto Rico are extraordinarily organized and patient. Not one complaint about the heat, torrential rain and thunderstorms. The police team was instrumental to the mission's success, huge kudos to the Red Cross nurses who worked with clients with medical issues, and immense thanks to the community volunteers who showed up just to help the families in the community. I'm soaking wet (literally) and tired but can go to bed "Feliz como una lombriz.” (This is a common Spanish language phrase which is similar to the American phrase “happy as a clam.”)
October 3 - Isabela - Arenales Alto
Today we went to the mountains. The box truck we were chasing didn't have a lift gate (this was common), meaning this small team unloaded several tons of food and water manually. Another rewarding mission accomplished, 1,427 people fed today and 20 hugs from residents. Red Cross volunteers are my heroes, these guys are just amazing.
October 4 - Santa Clara de los Corujos
Some of the daily activities are moving debris to stage a distribution location – downed trees, power lines and poles. The community center was blocked by many trees on the ground. One of my teammates doesn’t speak Spanish, but hugs and kisses are universal, and the people we are assisting are so moved by the help they receive. Team AYUDA distributed life sustaining supplies to 1,479 Santacorujanos today, receiving 9 hugs, 3 kisses and probably 300 “God bless yous.”
October 5 - Barrio Certeneias, Cidra
More than 2,700 people were provided strawberries, mango, oranges, pineapple, canned meats and beans, cheese, water and fresh bread called Mallorcas. I was the bread guy today. Cut and passed about a gazillion family size pieces of Mallorcas. We see clients in tears after receiving their items. It rained again. A lot. Team AYUDA doesn't stop, rain or shine we go out to neighborhoods and provide food and water to our community.
October 7 – San Juan
Today we are helping at the warehouse making "Puerto Rican boxes" filled with local items -- mangos, bag of fruits (apples, pears and lemons), yuca, pies, cheese, corn pops, canned meat and beans. Separately we provide bottled water (too heavy to put it in the box). My team made 1,000 of these boxes this AM. Team AYUDA broke the record today. Did I mention it was 2 degrees Celsius inside that freezer?
October 8 - Lares
The small community of Lares was visited today by Team AYUDA and Team 7. Another monsoon, another neighborhood served! Spanish comes handy here in Puerto Rico. Today we had Cruz Roja Mexicana, Cruz Roja Colombiana and Cruz Roja Americana - all working together!
October 9 - Juncos
Today was a very productive day. We partnered with the local Emergency Management department, the city Mayor and the local police. About 1,674 persons were fed and provided water. Drinking water seems to be the scarcest resource. And It rained. Again.
October 10 – San Juan
After 10 days in Puerto Rico I have visited the 4 corners of the island. I've seen the best of the Puerto Rican community. They are strong and resilient. Puerto Rico will rise again! I can also report with certainty that the island needs URGENT help, homes have no power and families have (very) limited access to drinking water.
October 12 -- Barrio Las Vegas in Cayey
450 people served including 13 in-house visits for homebound residents couldn't go to the community center. We got a list of those families from community leaders, got in a vehicle and went to their doorsteps. In one of the homes we visited, there were 3 families sharing the livable space on the 1st floor, the second floor had no roof. The spirit of this family is remarkable despite their challenges. You see that everywhere you go in PR.
October 13 – Aibonito
900 Aiboniteños served. Team AYUDAs mission today was to visit bedridden clients in a 1/2 mile radius. We visited 13 homes. Local volunteers and the police made a big difference by helping with logistics and organizing the crowd. "Sleeves up, hearts open, all in."
October 14 - Barrio La Plena, Ponce
Today I met Mrs. Cecilia, she's 87 and lives by herself. She was in tears when I delivered the box of food, water, Clorox and 2 tarps. She told me we were the first agency that came to her town, to her neighborhood, to provide food and help. I will never forget her face and the way that she received our help. And that’s why we are there, that’s why we want to make a difference and help all these people that really need help.
October 18 – San Juan
We have a new Team AYUDA. Sadly, we said so long to three volunteers who had reached the end of their deployments, but luckily introduced three new faces. Team AYUDA aided 400+ clients yesterday in San Juan at an apartment building named Alturas del Señorial. One of the residents brought us guava bread pudding. It was a great day.
October 19 – San Juan
Today I had the opportunity to see two Red Crossers, Lee and Jack, at Red Cross headquarters in San Juan. These guys have worked nonstop since Hurricane Harvey. I wish I had a fraction of their stamina. Tip of my hat to them.
October 23 – Tampa, FL
After 3+ weeks, my hurricane Maria deployment in Puerto Rico has come to an end. Sadly, I said so long to my teammates and the people of Puerto Rico. But fortunately, new and fresh volunteers are arriving every day.
Team AYUDA left everything we had on Puerto Rico, we helped a lot of people, same for all the other Red Cross teams and people at San Juan headquarters. A lot needs to be done in Puerto Rico, this is going to be an ultra-marathon and not a 5K sprint. When the news fades, the people of Borinquen will still need help to rebuild their lives and find that path to recovery. The Red Cross will be there.