Bringing relief to a Puerto Rican Island with love
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, ViequesLove is taking aid into their own hands
Brittany Roush, 29, helms the desk in her Maryland home office cluttered with paperwork, two computer screens, and countless handwritten sticky notes. She speaks into a smartphone, hoping the person on the other end can help save a hospital effected by Hurricane Maria.
“Our generator failed,” she tells me. Eighteen dialysis patients on Vieques, a small island seven miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico with no electricity, have been without treatment for three days, offering clear proof that Hurricane Maria’s wrath isn’t over.
Next to her sits Steven Mueller, 32, her husband, also glued to his phone, vigorously taking notes. They need to evacuate the patients and their four nurses. Then, replace one of the generators.
“I don’t think the hospital has ever had 18 patients,” he says about the northeastern Caribbean island of 9,000.
Outside the office door, Roush’s paintings line the walls, toys dot the floor, and pets compete for attention, subtle reminders of the life they lead outside of ViequesLove, a relief group they started after Hurricane Maria with 11 others, mostly women and many, Puerto Rican.
Although she doesn’t agree, Roush is starting to look like a superwoman to me. Eighteen months ago, she gave birth to Amelia Isabel and continues to work full time while fulfilling her position as a principal of ViequesLove. She’s pursuing her second master’s in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and holds a bachelor’s in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness from Virginia Commonwealth University and a master’s in Biosecurity from the University of Maryland University College.
When Hurricane Maria hit Vieques on Sept. 20, Roush, who lived on Vieques for three years, knew she had to do something.
Communication on Vieques was the first noticeable casualty to the outside world. Desperate searches on social media began to stream in from frantic family and friends who hadn’t heard from anyone on the island. Roush recalls seeing “La Nasa” for the first time on social media after the storm, and crying. The popular local hangout, integral to the community on Vieques, was decimated.
“We just assumed FEMA would be in Vieques,” says Roush.
But they weren’t. Not yet.
That night, Roush called a friend in Pennsylvania, Kelly Thompson, 47, who publishes a magazine on the island and whose husband is still there. Thompson had started a GoFundMe page to help rebuild the island. It quickly became apparent to Thompson and Roush that they’d have to shift gears.
By Monday morning, only five days after the storm, ViequesLove was created to bring relief. Over the course of the weekend, the organization had already managed to team up with two new members on the ground, charter a private plane to deliver 15 satellite phones, and deliver 1,000 lbs of critical relief supplies.
“ViequesLove went and cleared out a few local Costcos and Walmarts of everything,” says Roush. The group went on to deliver another 9,000 lbs of critical supplies and medications with another 60,000 lbs planned.
“We estimate that with the satellite phones we brought to Vieques, we have enabled roughly 75 percent of the island to be able to call out to family members, and are working diligently to get that number closer to 100 percent,” Roush says.
Since then, they have lobbied Congress using any resources available to them— social media, personal contacts, and emails to get attention on Vieques and “the abysmal response by the federal government,” says Roush. “The worst FEMA response in U.S. history was Katrina until this one.”
Fifteen days after it was set up, their GoFundMe page is nearing $800,000. ViequesLove helped stock the only hospital on the island with enough medication for an entire pharmacy and surplus for the first time since the 1980's.
ViequesLove also participated in the evacuation of Amy Gordon, 37, now a core member of the relief group who got a seat at the last minute after someone else gave it up. ViequesLove also evacuated Andy Ramos, 36, a former Vieques police officer fighting lung and metastasized brain cancer who was on the island visiting family when the hurricane hit.
When ViequesLove arrived on the island, the relief process had already begun on the ground by its residents, including two of ViequesLove’s future members, Mark Martin Bras and Angie Adams.
Roush shares stories of known drug runners helping stay-at-home-moms clear trees from the roads, and a Texas philanthropist who donated her plane and pilot to ViequesLove to deliver 7,000 lbs of supplies.
“It’s overwhelming the amount of good that people want to do. People want to help in any way they can,” says Roush.
Mueller and Roush, who ran a custom furniture business before moving to Maryland because of complications with Roush’s pregnancy, say Vieques is their second home.
“You can’t walk down the street without spending 10 minutes saying hi to people,” Roush says about the island known for its bioluminescent waters, tourism and wild roaming horses.
Each of the 13 members of ViequesLove has either left someone they love behind or are still on the island. Claritza Navarro, Gladys Aleman, Angie Adams, and Katie Anderson have family and friends on the island.
Szaritza Vázquez-Betancourt, 45, who grew up in Puerto Rico and Vieques, still has family there too. Her mother has been sleeping on her balcony since Hurricane Irma, when she lost electricity. Vázquez-Betancourt says she couldn’t sit in the comfort of her home in New Jersey and watch the destruction on her island.
“I felt like my parents were in an ICU unit fighting for their lives and I was trying to find the best doctors to help me save them,” she says of getting involved with ViequesLove.
Heather Knorr, 36, a professor of Spanish, lived for a year with her daughter on Vieques and visits every summer. Robert Becker, a veteran of five presidential campaigns including Bernie Sanders’s, owns a house on the island and is currently on the ground.
Putting satellite phones directly into the hands of the people who needed them saved lives, says Thompson. “Having that communication enabled a lot of things to happen behind the scenes … which has in turn helped get the government moving.”
It also helped residents cope with the disaster emotionally. Roush says schooling prepared her for responding to disasters but not the psychology behind it.
“If we were dead-set on providing the island with food, water, and medicine and completely missed the boat on providing satellite phones, we would have missed a crucial step. Helping the island heal mentally is as important as helping the island healing physically,” says Mueller.
Amy Gordon, a journalist who is reporting on Vieques, was one of the team members on the island when hurricane Maria arrived. She flew with a pilot-friend from Vieques to San Juan to make a call to her worried family.
This small island seven miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico has been without running water, power, gasoline or…www.washingtonpost.com
Not having communication on the island was frightening, she says. “We kept seeing a radar plane flying over and thinking, is there another hurricane coming? You don’t know if anyone is going to help you, when the supplies are going to run out, whether someone is going to bring supplies before that happens. Are we going to have enough water? When is gas coming? Being cut off from the outside world is very hard.”
Much has been left in Hurricane Maria’s wake: uprooted bare trees, destroyed roads and homes, downed cables, limited gas and water.
Yet even as things looked dire in Vieques, the community, a resilient one who fought to remove the U.S. Navy from the island after decades of practice bombing, pulled together and organized music and dancing events, poetry readings, Zumba classes and art therapy classes.
“In these days when people really need the help, the Vieques people have answered, both on and off the island,” says Gordon.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, two days after the storm the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley delivered food and water from FEMA to Vieques, offloading 750 liters of bottled water and 1,440 meals.
“It wasn’t enough for the total amount of the population, at all,” says Vázquez-Betancourt, a former contractor for FEMA for 20 years. “Given that the population of the island is about 10,000 inhabitants, if you make the equation, this wasn’t sufficient as the first resource of response after the disaster for the population of the island.”
The United States Coast Guard (USCG) has been “awesome,” says Mueller for their ground support. Former New York governor George Pataki, who owns a house on the island, reached out to ViequesLove to help bring gas to the island and Representative Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) helped source a generator for the island.
“We understand the complexities involved in certain things. The leadership from the Trump administration down has challenges, at least in organization, leveraging resources, communication, getting caught in the red tape,” says Roush.
Brooke Loucks, 43, whose parents lived on Vieques for 20 years, handles the supply chain for ViequesLove. She’s been back twice since the storm to help bring aid.
“The tone on the island has struck me, even from day one, as remarkably optimistic, remarkably hopeful,” she says.
“Obviously they’re afraid and don’t want to be forgotten. It’s starting to set in that jobs are going to go away because tourists aren’t going to come this year. It’s starting to set in that fishermen are going to need to find another way to support their families this year. Those are the types of things that we are starting to see.”
At this time, coordinated help is available on the island. FEMA says they have three permanently-stationed employees assigned to Vieques with more disaster survivor assistance teams scheduled to arrive in the near future; the U.S. Navy and Air Force have helped establish a communication post in the municipality that has enabled short range wireless connection; government and NGOs have formed to coordinate efforts. There is running water in most neighborhoods but fuel is still a challenge. The USCG has helped the municipality to secure diesel to power the generators necessary for water treatment and sanitation.
Now it’s time to look ahead. “We don’t want to rebuild Vieques without the Viequensens,” but if the community supports it, they would like to leverage Vieques into a test case for how an island can be green-powered, says Roush.
“We’re hopeful the future of Vieques can flourish.”