This week marks one year since Hurricane Maria tore through the Caribbean islands. As president of the Hispanic Federation, I am marking this somber anniversary by helping to launch a new campaign called “Take Action for Puerto Rico!” to ensure the island and its people have the financial and moral support they need to thrive. What I’ve seen in my multiple visits to Puerto Rico over the last 12 months has convinced me that human resilience, optimism, and community organizing will always outlast tragedy, but more work needs to be done.
In Puerto Rico, the devastation was as wide as it was deep. Power lines snapped under ferocious winds and roads were washed away by torrential downpours and mudslides. Roofs were ripped off homes, aggravating an already deepening housing crisis. The island’s electrical grid, weakened by Hurricane Irma some weeks earlier and by years of neglect, was completely shattered, leaving millions to fend for themselves during what became the longest power outage in U.S. history.
Human resilience, optimism, and community organizing will always outlast tragedy
Words fail to describe the damage done to the island’s inhabitants. Businesses closed. Schools were shuttered. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, suddenly homeless and jobless, left the island for the mainland. Most heartbreaking of all, we know now that some 3,000 or more Puerto Ricans died as a direct result of the storm or its aftermath. Claims of “fake news” notwithstanding, the personal stories of those deaths and the tragedy that unfolded on the island in the storm’s wake are just now coming into focus.
Given the bleak landscape of post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico, it’s easy to fall into anguish and despondency. And yet, even if the challenges seem insurmountable, Puerto Ricans have displayed an almost superhuman level of resiliency that should inspire us all. Faced with a terrible natural disaster and with a patently insufficient federal response, Puerto Ricans have demonstrated that the future of the island will be led by local communities determined to build a new Puerto Rico.
In February of this year, I traveled to Yauco, a town located in southwestern Puerto Rico. I was introduced to the work of the Centro Microempresas y Tecnologías Agrícolas Sustentables (CMTAS), a 70-acre education center for agricultural microenterprises that supports local communities and farmers through sustainable technology.
The organization’s leaders understood that if Puerto Rico was ever to recover from the hurricane it would have to strengthen its agricultural sector. We were so impressed by CMTAS’ vision that they became one of our first grantees. The organization received emergency funds to provide furniture and appliances to over 30 small farmers and their families who lost their homes. It distributed solar lamps, water filters, mosquito nets, and food to thousands of families. The funding allowed the organization to construct a solarized well that will provide the community of Quebradas in Yauco and those in surrounding areas with clean water. They will be better prepared in the event of another disaster.
Our support helped CMTAS restore pathways, fencing, and a hydroponic station on its model farm, replace livestock lost in the storm, and repair its teaching building so that it could reopen its school. Hispanic Federation is also helping install a pilot anaerobic bio-digester which will supply a free source of renewable, biogas energy to 15 nearby homes and the CMTAS school. Its goal is to develop an agro-tourism business that will help sustain these and other projects.
Volunteers from the United States and Spain help rebuild a home in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico.
Image: Monica Tavares / hispanic federation
There are hundreds of other projects just like these across the island: Puerto Rican-led initiatives designed to strengthen Puerto Rico. Thanks to the generosity of more than 200,000 donors to our Unidos Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund, we were on the ground just a couple of days after the storm providing relief, coordinating with local groups to get aid to where it was needed most, and serving as a vital bridge between worried Puerto Ricans on the mainland and isolated Puerto Ricans on the island.
We were able to deliver over 7 million pounds of food, water, and critical supplies to all of the island’s 78 municipalities. We coordinated 25 relief flights carrying medicine, first responders, and solar panels to aid those without electricity. We conducted medical evacuations and missions, bringing individuals in critical care to mainland U.S. hospitals and much-needed doctors and nurses to the people on the island. In less than a year we have committed $30 million dollars to community-based relief and reconstruction projects that are building a fairer and more resilient Puerto Rico.
A farmer in Cayey, Puerto Rico, leading Hispanic Federation staff on a tour of land devastated by Hurricane Maria.
Image: Monica Tavares / hispanic federation
As much as I can be proud of Hispanic Federation’s efforts in Puerto Rico, and humbled by the solidarity of hundreds of thousands of people who gave time and treasure to support Puerto Ricans in their time of need, what makes me prouder still is to have witnessed the determination and creativity of Puerto Ricans who refuse to surrender their island to the storm.
Yet in order to see local initiatives and projects through to fruition, Puerto Rico needs help — a great deal of help. The kind of help that only a significant federal investment can provide. Unfortunately, the federal response to the crisis on the island has been inhumane and inadequate.
That’s why this week we are joining with 250 organizations across the United States for the month-long “Take Action for Puerto Rico!” campaign. We are all coming together to demand a recovery plan for the island that is just and sustainable, and to call on the federal government to finally honor its responsibility and duty to the people of Puerto Rico.
While the events taking place during the campaign will vary, all of the participating groups have committed to take action around four critical pillars for Puerto Rico’s recovery: empowered community, health care equity, climate change preparedness, and economic redevelopment.
So many of us want to help Puerto Rico get back on its feet, and to stand stronger than before. We can do that by supporting Puerto Rican recovery efforts that are grounded in local realities and local needs. Our campaign does that, with the aim of achieving maximum impact for Puerto Ricans living on the island. This moment, though born from catastrophe, has brought us an opportunity to fundamentally change Puerto Ricans’ lives for the better. Let’s not waste it.
José Calderón is president of the Hispanic Federation. The mission of the Hispanic Federation is to empower and advance the Hispanic community.