First Person

Bridging the water gap in Puerto Rico

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Hurricane Maria knocked down these electric cables near Caguas, Puerto Rico. Much of the island may be without electricity for months, making it difficult for people to boil water to make it safe to drink. Photo: Rhett-Lee García Figueroa.

With lack of electricity and clean water creating a health crisis, Oxfam is responding with help for vulnerable people facing water borne diseases.

Martha Thompson, in Puerto Rico on behalf of Oxfam, is spending a lot of time in the “Coliseo” – the Roberto Clemente Coliseum – along with hundreds of island residents who are working day and night to deliver goods and services to the millions of people struggling to survive in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Thompson reports it is “bustling from early in the morning to late at night. We met with the mayor (Carmen Yulín Cruz) there at 6 pm [last] Wednesday… she greeted us and asked if we could have a walking meeting. It was full of pallets of supplies and teams packing supplies in boxes for distribution, groups coming in from communities and other towns asking for aid, first responder volunteer groups from different parts of the US, truck drivers reporting in, people organizing shipments, donors, logistics people…”

Thompson is working out how Oxfam can best aid in the efforts to reach those who have been waiting weeks now for help following hurricanes Irma and Maria. She is finding an able partner in the office of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

“The mayor has organized and implemented an emergency response operation based out of the Coliseo that functions as a command and distribution center,” Thompson is reporting to us. “They provide emergency relief to city residents affected by the hurricane through municipal structures, community leaders, faith-based communities, and other service providers. The mayor’s office is using their staff and others to reach out to the communities, connect with leaders, identify needs of vulnerable populations, and respond with aid. They also respond to communities’ direct appeals for food, water, and services.”

“The mayor seemed to be able to organize one action after another as she took us around. We had the chance to see people coming in to ask her for help, how she set up a way to verify their requests, made sure they had a hot meal while they were there, and gave them all a hug.”

“The mayor has a warm, direct, and clear leadership style that people deeply appreciate. She gets things done. And this is a time when you really need people cutting through the red tape and getting things done.”

“We were with her for two-and-a-half hours and she was a whirlwind. She was able to tell us what towns really need help, how they made sure communities that asked for help sent in people to assemble and pack boxes, and showed us the lists of recipients that communities sent to her on her cell phone. It was a terrific learning opportunity to see her in action.”

Water crisis

In many areas near San Juan (and all over the island), people are relying on bottled water – when they can get it. Otherwise, they have to use unsafe water for cooking, and are vulnerable to leptospirosis (a nasty disease people can contract from water contaminated with urine from animals). “There are two confirmed deaths from leptospirosis in the municipality of Canovas,” Thompson reports. People can protect themselves by boiling water before drinking or cooking it–but with no electricity, this is difficult if not impossible.

With financial help from Oxfam, the Mayor’s office is going to distribute 1,000 butane gas stoves and four extra tanks of fuel to 1,000 households in the poorest areas near San Juan so families can boil water and cook more safely.

Elderly people continue to struggle in the storm’s aftermath. Our colleague Linde Rivera told us last week that a friend of hers had to take her elderly mother, who was battling cancer, out of the country because it was too difficult to meet all her needs while she was living on the 17th floor of an apartment building with no electricity (and no working elevator). Oxfam is stepping up to help elderly people who can’t leave the island: we are providing funds to purchase 14,000 adult diapers to meet a crucial need in 51 homes for the elderly in San Juan.

Help us meet the most critical needs of people struggling to survive in Puerto Rico.

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