On the storm-battered island, a battalion of volunteers helps residents wade through the fine print to get the aid they need.
Samantha Nurick is a humanitarian press officer at Oxfam.
I first visited Puerto Rico a few years ago on my initial foray into solo travel. I’ve heard it said that Puerto Ricans are the kind of people who will tell you their life stories within minutes of meeting you, and I certainly found this to be true, chatting with people on the bus and around San Juan–and I’ve had a special love for the island ever since. So when I had the opportunity to return as part of Oxfam’s response to Hurricane Maria, I was glad, but also anxious to see the devastation from the storm.
Both my expectations held true. While still a beautiful place, the ocean is no longer the same pure blue, few trees are left standing, and homes everywhere have been destroyed; piles of debris line the streets of San Juan as the city struggles just to make sure its people have water and food. Puerto Ricans I met lamented the damage caused to El Yunque–the only tropical rain forest within the United States.
But I also saw the great resilience, caring, and ingenuity of Puerto Ricans. In Old San Juan, the few restaurants with generators served the same amazing mofongo (a Puerto Rican specialty made with mashed plantains and stewed meat–if you’ve never tried, I highly recommend it) as local musicians played live.
And across the island, Oxfam is working with people who organized to help their communities and those most in need. I got to visit Maunabo, a municipality to the southeast, which the eye of the hurricane passed right over, and see how Fundación Fondo al Aceso a la Justicia (a foundation Oxfam is partnering with on the island) funded lawyers and law students are helping residents fill out forms to apply for aid from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The foundation existed before Maria, but the lawyers who drove for hours to reach fellow Puerto Ricans in need organized after the hurricane because they feel it’s their duty to help out. On the basketball court where the lawyers gathered, hundreds of community members came to get assistance with the forms to ensure they’ll get the federal aid they need. The lawyers’ efficiency was impressive: Within just a couple hours, everyone got the chance to speak with one of the lawyers and found the support they needed. While many Maunabo residents were frustrated with the slow response, still relying on sporadic deliveries of aid for food and water, they were grateful for the lawyers and most left more hopeful than when they arrived.
Oxfam is working with other local organizations across the island, like the Foundation for Puerto Rico, which is delivering water filters to elderly homes, and the mayor of San Juan’s office, which is providing gas stoves so people can boil water and cook. Efforts like these also give me hope for the future of the island.
Right now, people still need basic essentials like water filters, power generators, and food. The infrastructure–the power grid, the water pipes, the buildings–will take time, probably years to be repaired. But in the meantime, people like the lawyers who spend their Saturdays helping others in Maunabo and the musicians still playing in Old San Juan will be there, continuing to spread the warmth and beauty that I first found two years ago and that’s still there today.
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