I’m still in Puerto Rico, working with an emergency response team assisting survivors of the 50-mile-wide hurricane Maria, which chopped the island in half, wreaking havoc on its infrastructure in September.
My role here will end soon. Others will carry the torch. For many, the lack of power and water will continue. Like the two-foot long iguana that sits patiently by our team house each day, perhaps hoping for a scrap of food, the people of this tiny island wait patently for more electricity and more water to be turned on.
Each day has meant a surprise of transportation and communication challenges. They pop up like the surprises I get when I return to my small room and turn on the light, ready to do battle with centipedes or cockroaches that have made it across the line of Comet powdered household cleaner that I have spread along the stoop at my front door to prevent their invasion.
Delivering aid is a coordinated or sometimes uncoordinated dance of logistics, warehousing, communications, needs assessments and post-distribution monitoring, sort of like an iguana on a hot tin roof; sometimes it’s smooth sometimes it’s jerky. The next day the roof cools and it is an easy walk. In a disaster response, you just never know.
I will miss driving on the roller coaster mountaintop roads that zig and zag along the edge of high cliffs, leaving our arms tired. I will miss the poinsettia bushes screaming their red Christmas colours.
Getting stuff done is often about relationships, and that is what I will miss the most. I will miss friendships formed with colleagues and perhaps most of all relationships with those we serve, the Puerto Rican friends or the “Boricua” as most prefer to be known. These are the mostly optimistic and joyous, energetic, Latin-spirited people who live on this tiny island, which exists in an odd kind of limbo or purgatory between its formal relationship with the U.S. and an inner yearning by some to stand on its own feet, even continuing its current status with the US.
For the island to move in any direction it must get its house in order. Power must be restored and thousands of homes need to be repaired or rebuilt. Politically it must deal with its massive $70 billion debt that oppresses everything, not unlike the mid-day humidity that sucks the energy from everything you do.
The sad part of any disaster is that once the TV cameras leave, the world tends to forget. This was true after the Haitian earthquake, the Asian tsunami and most emergencies I have worked. Aid agencies are willing to continue, but without resources, they have to reduce operations. Some have left here for that very reason. Others, because their first response expertise is no longer needed.
If we are to live in a compassionate world, we need to figure out how to manage these disasters for the long term so rebuilding can continue. I don’t have many answers—I’ll leave that to the policy wonks. For me, as I wind down, I simply have good memories of working with like-minded individuals, both international staff and warm-hearted Puerto Ricans, who want to make a difference both here and around the world.
From Ponce, Puerto Rico, Feliz Navidad and Happy New Year.