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Puerto Rico after the storm: A look under the veil of poverty

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Candi Colón had stomach problems, skin irritation, nausea, and sometimes couldn’t eat – all due to drinking contaminated water after hurricane Maria hit. But now she feels “so, so good” because of the clean water she can drink from the water filter she received from Oxfam. “The best thing that could have happened to me after Hurricane Maria was getting the filter,” she said. Photo by Alyssa Eisenstein/Oxfam America

Three months after hurricane Maria, families are still coping with lack of water, power, and recovery funds.

Abby Maxman is the president of Oxfam America

When I arrived in Puerto Rico three months after Hurricane Maria, I was expecting to see families in need, and in the dark. I certainly saw this – I met families in poor communities in San Juan and rural areas who are still without power or clean water. I heard stories of both elderly and young people without access to health care.

But I also saw an island of American citizens whose current humanitarian crisis is just the most recent and severe of their longstanding struggles with poverty and exclusion, struggles that have been hidden beneath the veneer of the island’s mountainous and seaside beauty.

Over and over I heard it – “the hurricane has only lifted the veil of poverty here.” As international organizations like Oxfam have made unusual decisions to intervene in Puerto Rico, on US soil, the people here are eager to share their gratitude, and their stories of hardship exacerbated by Hurricane Maria. Puerto Ricans are picking up the pieces, and hope to rebuild their homes, but also to reimagine and rebuild the whole system which has been failing them and holding them back for years. They have lost trust in the institutions that should be helping them.

I spoke with a young mother named Jessi in Villalba, a remote municipality in the mountains, where she and her three young children were living without power and clean drinking water for more than three months. She suffers from arthritis and a bad back. Her youngest son had two stomach surgeries when he was a newborn, and now as a toddler is especially vulnerable to diseases that come from drinking unsafe water. The pipes in her house only give her intermittent and unclean water for laundry or cleaning, so she has to spend precious time and resources travelling to buy bottled water to drink – until the day Oxfam staff arrived with a water filter. I watched as our team showed her how this filter works and how to maintain it – it should last her for years, lifting burdens of time, money, and worry. We also gave them two solar-powered lights to help Jessi take care of her children and feel safe in and around her home during the dark nights.

Navigating FEMA

Jessi and others have also been trying to navigate the process to file claims with FEMA. We were able to stop next in Comerio, another town in the mountains, to see this work in action.  The Casa Juana Colón, a women’s center which has taken on a wider scope of work since the hurricane, was bustling. (This is a story we heard many times – people and organizations adapting and stepping up to meet new needs since the hurricane, reinforcing our belief that local organizations are best placed to respond to emergencies, and need our support to be prepared to do so.) Power had just come back on in this town center two days earlier, but the other buildings and homes were still in the dark.

Our partner Foundation Fund for Access to Justice is providing legal and notary services to more than 80 local residents, helping people to submit their applications, or in many cases their appeals, to FEMA to get funding to rebuild their homes. A grant from Oxfam, thanks to the support of our many donors, is  bringing these services to 50 of the 78 municipalities of Puerto Rico between now and March 2018, with the goal of helping 20,000 people.

Author Abby Maxman and Pamela C. Silva Díaz, Oxfam’s lead technician for public health in Puerto Rico, explaining the use of a water filter they just delivered to Jessi Cartagena Santiago. Photo by Alyssa Eisenstein/Oxfam America

I spoke with Elizabeth there, who lives with her sister and her autistic teenage nephew.  She was at the center for legal advice to appeal her initial FEMA response. Elizabeth, smiling and upbeat, expressed her appreciation for the help navigating this, her one chance to appeal to FEMA. She showed us photos of her nephew’s room – walls without a ceiling – and told us she was concerned that the $630 originally approved by FEMA would not come close to covering the damages. Since the hurricane, Elizabeth and her family have been living together in their living room. She wants to do more than patch up her home – she wants to rebuild in a way that will keep her family safe in future storms, which will inevitably come.

We always say we want to build back better after a storm like Maria — to replace damaged infrastructure with something stronger, that will weather the increasing frequency and ferocity of storms that are a consequence of climate change. We need to give communities and families the resources to do so.  Decades of disaster relief and response have proven, repeatedly, that it is more efficient (and saves lives) to invest in prepared and resilient communities.  By offering Elizabeth 50 percent of what she needs to rebuild her home, the system is dooming her to an inadequate recovery,  and to a cycle of fearing how her family will fare in the next big weather event.

Elizabeth Bagan Calderon received legal help from one of Oxfam’s partner, the Foundation Fund for Access to Justice (FFAJ), in Villalba municipality. Elizabeth lives with her sister and her disabled nephew. They lost half of their roof when hurricane Maria hit, and FEMA initially offered $634 for the repairs, which was not enough. Because of the legal help they received via Oxfam’s partner, Elizabeth learned she and her sister were going to need to provide two estimates for the roof repair, photos of the damage, and other information. Photo by Alyssa Eisenstein/Oxfam America
Elizabeth Bagan Calderon received legal help from one of Oxfam’s partner, the Foundation Fund for Access to Justice (FFAJ), in Villalba municipality. Elizabeth lives with her sister and her disabled nephew. They lost half of their roof when hurricane Maria hit, and FEMA initially offered $634 for the repairs, which was not enough. Because of the legal help they received via Oxfam’s partner, Elizabeth learned she and her sister were going to need to provide two estimates for the roof repair, photos of the damage, and other information. Photo by Alyssa Eisenstein/Oxfam America

Throughout my trip, I kept repeating an old adage to myself: Never waste a good crisis. This can be the time that the government at all levels renews its commitment to the US citizens of Puerto Rico. Until recently, most people didn’t understand how much many Puerto Ricans have been struggling. The veil of poverty and exclusion has been lifted, and it’s now in our hands to make it right, to hold our government to account, to stand up for immediate aid now, and revised policies that allow Puerto Rico to recover and build back better. Now we know, so now we must act.

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