I have blogged in the past about disaster relief work, the first about Joplin, Missouri. This one is about Hurricane Maria. She devastated Puerto Rico, killing thousands and costing $91.6 billion in September 2017.
This time I worked with All Hands and Hearts in the province Maria first assaulted — Yabucoa — with winds close to 150 miles per hour.
I traveled there in February of 2018. Here is what I posted on Facebook after returning from volunteering two weeks in Yabucoa. I had posted several times while there, even with spotty Wi-Fi coverage.
“As promised, some thoughts on my two weeks in Yabucoa. Most do not know that, in addition to the winds, there were three tornados and an earthquake in the middle of the onslaught. A street sign in nearby Humacao ended up over sixty miles west in the mountains; proof of tornados.
The Yabucoa folks are quite resilient. Once they realized no one was coming to help — PR government, FEMA or soldiers — they banded together and began cleaning up, led by their mayor. Many would say the mayor saved their lives. He and the governor are members of opposite parties, which only explains part of their differences. As the story goes, when the Yabucoa mayor complained about no power, he was sent a candle.
The wait for gas and ATMs took hours. And while I witnessed a lot of activity fixing power lines and burying cables, no one had any idea when the power would return.
Many of the homes in Yabucoa had second stories. Those homes received the worst damage, and this is where All Hands is focusing the most. First, demolition of all or most of the second floor, then leveling the roof, then patching leaks with concrete, then sealing the concrete, then power washing, then priming them, and finally applying two coats of sealant. All while dealing with daily showers where the primer, and two sealant coats needed 24 hours to dry. I spent all of my days, but one, up on roofs, and helped finish six roofs.
All Hands also did tree and limb clearing, and minor repairs to doors, windows, etc. All Hands is partnering with Travelers to rebuild a baseball field, one of two left after Maria — there were over twenty. Yabucoans love their baseball, and they send a team to international competitions every year.
All Hands is committed to Yabucoa for two years. Given the metrics of their first month there, they will impact upwards of 2,500 individuals during that time.
Universally the people were friendly, always waving or honking their horns when they saw our purple work-shirts. On my last day, a car paused and shouted up to us, “God Bless You!” I heard this from many of the volunteers. One man teared up each time he recounted the experience. Yabucoa could use a team of volunteer psychologists. They still have a lot stress, and they need to talk. We listened as best we could, keeping our eyes on finishing roofs.
Interestingly, February is their dry season, yet it showered every day. The weather patterns have shifted. They fear more frequent hurricanes.
With buried power lines and fewer two-story structures, they should fare better the next time.
I brought home a Puerto Rico flag with saying, “SE LEVANTA” which in English means, “He Wake Up.” To me it means, Puerto Rico, Rise Up. You can find lots of merchandise with this saying on many websites, just Google “se levanta”.
I left a piece of my of my heart in Yabucoa.”
Much has happened, or not happened in Puerto Rico since Maria. It took several more months for the power to be restored to Yabucoa. Puerto Rico used up the paper towels Trump tossed to them. Only a fraction of the money Congress voted for assistance has been spent.
All Hands and Hearts surpassed their two-year commitment and is still patching up roofs. The latest hurricane did not impact Puerto Rico, but destroyed the Bahamas.
How long before the next one?
I write these blogs because we need to be reminded of the horror of these disasters, which come roaring at us and destroy our lives ever more frequently — and, in hopes that more of us will take up the challenge to get outside our comfort zone and physically step up.