First, hurricane relief and recovery - and then rebuilding a stronger Puerto Rico | Perspective

Jesús Pagán Torres (left) and Moriama Cortés (right) are part of a team of faculty and staff of Escuela Delia Dávila de Cabán who continue to distribute water and emergency relief in neighborhoods still without power and water. Escuela Delia Dávila de Cabán has served as a distribution point for the Puerto Rico Recovery Fund’s emergency relief efforts since it was established days after the storm.

I could see it from the sky above Puerto Rico. The island was no longer a rolling blanket of lowland and highland forests. A rare Category 5 hurricane, Maria, had ripped nearly every leaf from every kapok, tree fern, palm, and courbaril. But when I got on the ground, underneath the brown tangles of trunks and branches, I spotted bright new shoots of green.

I crisscrossed the island over five days, photographing hurricane relief carried out by people, communities, and nongovernmental organizations.

Camera icon Photo by Lori Waselchuk
Juan Jose Gonzalez Colón walks through his home, which was destroyed during the hurricane. He has begun repairs to the roof while leaving furniture and other damaged articles in place while he awaits a damage assessment from FEMA.

In the small town of Punta Santiago, every home and business sustained damage. Houses that did stand up to 155 mile-per-hour winds were soaked in up to five feet of brackish water. But the hurricane didn’t end just because the rain and wind had moved on. Floodwaters had contaminated most of the food and stored water.

Camera icon Photo by Lori Waselchuk
Armancio “Sijo” Acosta Rivera holds his only family photo in his home in Punta Santiago, The photo, and most of his belongings, were damaged during Hurricane Maria.

Cut off from rescue and help, the 5,000 residents of Punta Santiago knew what they had to do. They gathered salvageable food, collected water and medicines, and shared what they had collected with their neighbors in greatest need. For 10 days they cooked communal meals with help from a nonprofit named Programa de Educación Comunal de Entrega y Servicio (PECES), which for two decades has provided programs in three core areas: education, prevention services for at-risk populations, and entrepreneurship and development training. The nonprofit reopened its campus as soon as it cleared debris from its front gate, offering shelter and whatever supplies had been spared by the storm.

Camera icon Photo by Lori Waselchuk
Rosa Oquendo lost everything she and her husband owned during the storm. The Oquendos were living in a second-floor apartment that was torn off the building and now live with their daughter on the first floor, where they have improvised ways to keep dry.

Twelve days after the storm, help came to them from the skies. A nonprofit named the Center for a New Economy, with partner Espacios Abiertos, dispatched helicopters to drop food and supplies. A think tank with deep connections to stateside nonprofits and Puerto Ricans everywhere, CNE had quickly established the Puerto Rico Recovery Fund. Because of its reputation, CNE raised more than a million dollars in the week after the storm. They not only provided food and relief items, but also developed a multitiered distribution network of community-focused organizations. When the communities were unreachable by truck, CNE found helicopters to fly relief to them.

Camera icon Photo by Lori Waselchuk
Rebecca Rodrigues shows Don Angelino a solar lamp during a visit to the centenarian’s public housing apartment in Adjuntos. Rebecca is a volunteer at Casa Pueblo, which has become a center for relief operations and began the campaign “Light Up Puerto Rico” to promote the use of solar power.

Schools, community centers, and nongovernmental organizations quickly activated volunteers and staff to save lives in the days after the storm. The immediate emergency has passed, but many Puerto Ricans now realize how vulnerable they are. As Juan Jose Gonzalez Colón in Salinas considered the previous two months of living with his family in one small leaky room without electricity and water, he said: “We never knew how poor we were until Maria.”

As I traveled, I heard people say they don’t simply want to recover but intend to rethink issues of energy independence, sustainability, and transparent governance. Toward that end, CNE, PECES, and many other nonprofits will continue to provide relief while also pursuing a new mission — rebuilding Puerto Rico as a stronger and more prosperous place.

Camera icon Photo by Lori Waselchuk
Dr. Lourdes Marrero, with Mission de Haiti Se Pone de Pie, checks on 94-year-old Pedro Andino in his home in La Verde.

 

 

Lori Waselchuk is a visual artist in Philadelphia who coordinates special projects, community programs, and exhibitions at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. She traveled to Puerto Rico on a commission from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. loriwaselchuk@gmail.com