Last week, I visited Puerto Rico to view the devastation left by Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island and left its 3.4 million residents without power, clean water, safe housing and limited food. By some estimates, the recovery efforts may cost upwards of $90 billion, though it’s a price that pales in comparison to the heartbreak of those who lost their homes, jobs and family members in this natural disaster. The facts speak for themselves:
- 82 percent of residents are still without power
- 4,154 people still need safe and reliable housing
- Only 73 percent of people have access to running water
My goal was to meet with local leaders and explore how United Way Worldwide could provide further help. Alongside Samuel Gonzalez and the Fondos Unidos de Puerto Rico (United Way of Puerto Rico) team, I got an eye-opening experience. The plane ride to San Juan was delayed because Delta put us on a bigger plane to accommodate more supplies. We circled three times to wait on the opening of a longer runway before landing due to the sheer amount of cargo that was being delivered to the people in need.
As we descended, I was given a view of what people are living through. The typically lush green foliage was brown; the rivers and lakes were muddy brown; blue tarps have replaced roofs; powerlines are draped over undrivable streets; and concrete buildings are shells of themselves. I just couldn’t comprehend how much support this island would need to stabilize itself. On site, we visited two barrios, a homeless shelter and a school that serves students with developmental disabilities.
One barrio—Cantera—is home to elderly residents, and the conditions they’re living in are unimaginable. People are living among the debris and mold. At one point, I saw an elderly man who had burrowed into the remnants of his home; he was bedridden and being cared for by his neighbors. They fed him. They tended to his needs. All of this while clean water was hard to come by and power was unavailable. Despite the chaos, they were committed to helping each other.
Meanwhile, students at a nearby school couldn’t enter their building because of the mold and lack of electricity. While they conducted their exercises and classes on the playground, the teachers didn’t have a way to feed the students. In both instances—the barrio and school—Fondos Unidos knew they had the capacity to provide more food if they only had the resources. So, Fondos Unidos increased the capacity of nonprofit partners to help those most in need.
Throughout my trip, I saw people helping one another; it was the same type of dedication to rebuilding that I had witnessed in Texas and Florida. Although United Way is not primarily an emergency-relief organization, our ongoing support in areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, Irma, the flooding in India, the earthquake in Mexico, and the wildfires in California and British Columbia, ensures there is a consistent and stable community of hope.
I have gained a more astute appreciation for our local depth and global scale. Witnessing how local United Ways are bringing their communities together so they can move forward, and seeing the network stand ready to do whatever it can to support those affected, has been a true inspiration. Clearly, to live better, we must LIVE UNITED.