Powerless, Puerto Rico Inches Toward Recovery

The emergency may be over, but the troubles are not. That was evident as I traveled throughout Puerto Rico recently, meeting with Hurricane Maria survivors still living with widespread power outages and repairing storm-damaged homes. Traffic lights hang blankly above busy intersections and water leaks through roofs torn apart by 155 mph winds as Puerto Ricans adapt to life post-Maria. Families who can afford to fuel a generator ration a few meager hours of power a day to turn on a washing machine or a television for a much-needed escape.

Ramon and Francisca rely on the COSSMA clinic to manage their chronic health conditions. The couple, married 53 years, is living in a home on generator power nearly six months after the storm./Photo by William Vazquez

Just 45 minutes outside San Juan, patients in San Lorenzo are receiving care in temporary facilities set up in a parking lot in the shadow of a two-story clinic destroyed by the hurricane. Water poured into COSSMA, (…somos servico, somos salud) a nonprofit health center, when the hurricane peeled off a roof section. Only the dental chairs were salvageable.

Walking through the damaged COSSMA clinic with Executive Director Isolina Miranda./Photo by William Vazquez

Nearly six months after the storm, all that remains is a shell of a building with piles of sodden sheetrock and the heavy odor of mold. Rebuilding is expected to take at least a year. In the meantime, the 5,000 patients the clinic serves need health care.

Immediately after the hurricane, COSSMA began treating patients in the parking lot under tents in oppressive heat. Americares relief workers assessed the situation in the weeks after the storm and delivered a specially-designed medical structure, complete with climate control and water. This structure became the COSSMA clinic. Two trailers were added later with exam rooms and a pharmacy.

Americares installed a specially-designed medical structure to allow the COSSMA clinic in San Lorenzo to continue operating for survivors in the hard-hit community./Photo by William Vazquez

Now, about 60 children and adults arrive each day seeking primary care. Patients are arriving with bacterial infections, flu-like symptoms and respiratory problems — predictable health conditions with many patients living in water-damaged homes without electricity.

A young mother patiently sat in the waiting room with a toddler on her lap and two older children huddled under jackets, shivering with fever. While some patients who can afford transportation seek care at one of the clinic’s five other locations, others do not have that luxury. They need a clinic close to home where they can bring a sick child or refill a critical medication. The temporary clinic ensures the most vulnerable hurricane survivors have a place to receive care.

A COSSMA staff member comforts a patient waiting inside the temporary clinic to receive care./Photo by William Vazquez

These temporary structures will welcome patients until COSSMA is able to reconstruct the clinic. Americares too, will remain in Puerto Rico, helping communities recover and rebuild.