Written by Angelica Cadavid | Photograph by Gary Shaye
When I arrived in Puerto Rico, I didn’t know what to expect. Almost a year after Hurricane Maria, I wondered what I would see. Would my mother’s beloved island still show the scars of the devastation that roared upon its shores on September 20, 2017? What about the children?
What I saw was heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. The physical signs of Hurricane Maria were everywhere. I kept telling my non-Puerto Rico based colleagues that the island didn’t look like this before the storm. Everywhere were the markers of what were once family homes and local businesses, now in ruins. One girl I spoke with told me the hurricane blew the roof off her home. What was equally traumatic for her family was finding the remnants of other people’s lives that the storm had blown into their house, things like shoes and other personal items.
While many of the children and families that I spoke with painted a picture of loss, our conversations also turned hopeful. Communities like Fronton and Mulitas were coming together to support one another, especially the children. An abandoned basketball court is now a beautiful community center. It’s a place where children can play in a safe, protected environment, make up for lost school days, and heal from the trauma of loss and fear caused by the storm. One young boy told me he was afraid and angry after the hurricane but now he feels protected after participating in our Journey of Hope program.
Families told me how much the programs meant to them, but until I saw our community activities in action, I had no idea. I wish every Save the Children supporter could see the joy on the children’s faces. Even those kids that had started the day a bit sullen were soon laughing and playing.
Almost one year after Hurricane Maria, there is still so much need on the island. It took 10 months for the community of Mariana to get electricity. But Puerto Ricans are resilient and with help and the continued dedication of Save the Children staff, local leaders, parents and supporters – Puerto Rico si se levanta (Puerto Rico will rise up).
To learn more about Save the Children’s emergency responses and ongoing recovery work in Puerto Rico, visit our website.
It’s been a year since Hurricane Harvey tore through Texas. Hurricane Harvey’s destructive winds and historic floods displaced more than 1 million people and damaged over 200,000 homes. It was the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in over 50 years.1
Soon after Harvey hit, a pair of Category 4 hurricanes emerged from the Atlantic. After tearing its way across a string of Caribbean islands and up through Florida, Hurricane Irma left behind a trail of devastation – with more than 4 million children at risk.2 Families were left without power and without access to clean water. Many were coping with the loss of homes while damage to schools and child care programs left children out of school.
Days later, Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico and quickly became the largest disaster to affect the island since 1928. Children and families were left without electricity, drinking water, food and fuel. Nearly 15,000 people were living in shelters and all 1,113 public schools were closed.3
Save the Children has been on the ground in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico since early days of the response and is committed to helping children and families recover through restoration of early education services, social emotional support and emergency preparedness programming. We are committed to preparing and protecting the most vulnerable among us during disaster – children – through effective preparedness, response and recovery.
Learning from Disasters
In an era when disasters are growing in frequency and impact4, we must be at the ready to meet the specific needs of children and families when the next disaster strikes. Save the Children knows that children are most vulnerable in disasters, with unique needs that require specific and purposeful planning to keep them from harm.5 But how do you prepare for a hurricane?
Being aware of where evacuation routes are and staying informed about weather conditions can save lives. Additionally, it’s important to develop a family plan that details where emergency shelters are located, how to get to your meet-up location if your family is separated and who to designate as your family contact person can help you stay all safe. More tips, including how to develop a family communication strategy are outlined in Save the Children’s Disaster Checklist for Parents.
Living with Hardships
Disasters like Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria don’t simply destroy homes, they can devastate entire communities. Flood-damaged schools are rendered unsafe for children, businesses face foreclosures, and healthcare services may disappear. Contaminated water and air pollution lay the foundation for chronic disease.
In the earliest days of the crisis, we deployed our child-friendly spaces program to provide safe and protective play areas for children at seven evacuation shelters throughout Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. In coordination with partners, we distributed tens of thousands of infant, toddler, and child-centric materials, including portable cribs, hygiene kits, strollers, diapers, infant wash basins, and more.
2017 was an unprecedented year for hurricanes in America. Save the Children is committed to the victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria and our Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico teams will continue to support recovery efforts in all three areas through 2019 at a minimum.
In addition to building back better and increasing educational opportunities for children, Save the Children continues to offer our Journey of Hope resilience program for children, parents and caregivers as well as leading preparedness programs to help children, schools and communities better prepare for the next disaster.
To learn more about Save the Children’s emergency responses and ongoing recovery work, visit our website.
Leaning, J., and Guha-Sapir, D. “Natural Disasters, Armed Conflict, and Public Health.” New England Journal of Medicine. 369:19. (2013). pp. 1936-1842. See also: Cumming-Bruce, N. “U.N. Disaster Chief Warns of More Natural Catastrophes to Come.” The New York Times. 23 Dec. 2014, 23 November 2015.↩
In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 90 years tore across the island, packing winds over 150 miles per hour. As is often the case these days, attention has moved on to other crises at home and abroad, but we must not forget Puerto Rico. In mid-April , after months of slow progress, the island completely lost power again. And for the American families still without basic services and the children who have collectively lost out on millions of full school days, the hurricane is still a daily reality.
Here are six things you’ve probably forgotten about Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico but shouldn’t.
Life is Not Back to Normal in Puerto Rico Today. Even before April’s massive blackout, 10% of the island remained without power and for more than 50% of households in some rural and mountainous regions, power has yet to be restored. Frequent blackouts across the island cause residents to relive the immediate effects of the hurricane long after it has passed. Some families still do not have clean drinking water or reliable sanitation systems. Because conditions on the island remain bad, more than 20,000 students have left the island and lost days, weeks and in some cases months of learning. Tens of thousands of houses still have tarp roofs.
Schools in Puerto Rico are not fully operational. Today, some schools are still unable to operate on a full day schedule because they lack reliable power, which influences a wide variety of services like sanitation pumps, the cafeteria and learning. This is unacceptable and considerably slower than it took to reopen schools in Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Hurricane Irma. In addition to regaining power, it is imperative that the government develop a stronger plan to help children make up for lost learning and improve the quality of education on the island.
As physical damage continues to be repaired, emotional wounds need attention too. Catastrophic natural disasters often cause people to witness wide-scale destruction, be torn from routine and normalcy, and sometimes even experience the loss of a loved one. At this point, black-outs serve to quickly remind people, and in particular, children, of the trauma they experienced. Psychological support is needed for parents, teachers, principals and caretakers in addition to the island’s children.
Puerto Ricans are resilient and want to rebuild. I grew up in Puerto Rico. And in my multiple trips to the island over the past months, I have met countless people who are working as fast as they can to rebuild what was lost and build back their communities even better than they were before. That includes Alexandra and her brother, who I met in one of our child-friendly spaces while their parents worked to salvage all they had lost. The determination of their family to make Puerto Rico home again was motivating, and I know we can do better for the island.
History will judge how American citizens and the government aided Puerto Rico not only in the immediate aftermath of the storm but also in the long-term recovery. There have been amazing stories of people helping one another and Puerto Ricans showing their strength and resiliency but simply put, more should have been done and more must be done. Puerto Ricans urgently need reliable, functioning power, and Congress should allocate more funding that puts children’s education and recovery needs front and center. And we all must resolve not to forget our fellow Americans who are still suffering seven months after Hurricane Maria.
Carlos Carrazana is the chief operating officer and executive vice president of Save the Children. Learn more about Save the Children’s Hurricane Maria response at savethechildren.org/Hurricane-Maria.