When Hurricane Maria crashed over the island of Puerto Rico in 2017, America’s attention focused on the immediate needs of those whose lives had been turned upside down. Heart to Heart International was there as well. When commercial flights onto the island proved impossible in the aftermath of the storm, our teams took a helicopter and a donated ride on a cruise ship to reach the island. Medical providers immediately started treating patients in the mountains of Puerto Rico, reaching many communities before any other responders.
But as public attention faded, and the storm dropped off the media cycle, HHI remained. After the initial wave of medical disaster response concluded, we turned our focus to helping facilitate lasting solutions for resiliency and finding ways to help communities on the island build back better.
One of the programs we began working with initially was the Water Mission solar-powered well program. Many municipal water systems in rural Puerto Rico were in subpar condition prior to Hurricane Maria, and the periodic power outages they experienced even before the storm compromised safe water delivery. Following the hurricane, communities in Puerto Rico not only needed immediate relief, but also a long-term strategy for safe water delivery separate from the electrical grid. By equipping these communities with solar power, HHI and Water Mission (an organization that implements safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) solutions for people in developing countries and disaster areas) are providing sustainable safe water delivery systems that will decrease the communities’ dependence on the electrical grid and make them more resilient going forward. In other words, should grid power be interrupted by a storm or any other event in these communities, they will have the ability to operate their water system independently of the grid, thereby continuing the flow of safe water. As of January 2019, HHI and Water Mission have installed wells in four wells in various locations throughout the mountain communities: two in Comerío, and one each in Adjuntas and Barranquitas.
Another program HHI has been involved in is a partnership with COSSAO, a community organization dedicated to helping improve health access for those living in the mountain communities. These include many of them the same communities where HHI treated patients in 2017 in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria. COSSAO is comprised of people determined to work together to improve lives in their own communities. With support from HHI, they are training local community health workers to be deployed into the mountain communities to educate and inform about health services and basic health facts. Encouraging local participation and leadership has been proven to promote lasting community resilience. By supporting and working with COSSAO, HHI is encouraging the local community members who are taking control of their community’s rebuilding. This leads to longer-term success and will hopefully serve as an example to neighboring communities with similar health access problems.
In Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, another mountain community, Hurricane Maria damaged a former school to the point where it sat unused. Trinidad Community Life Center, a local organization, saw the potential for the facility to be used as a community center to include an educational center, childcare center and community gathering area. HHI joined the project to renovate and transform one of the damaged buildings into a community health clinic. This health center, in an area previously lacking easy access to health care, will be invaluable to members of the community.
In June 2019, HHI signed an agreement with Medical Reserve Corps of Puerto Rico to cement our commitment to respond with medical aid if another disaster hits. This includes storing hundreds of PowrServ hygiene kits in warehouses around the island, ready to be distributed immediately should another disaster occur.
In Puerto Rico, many people in the mountains have to travel long distances in difficult terrain to reach any kind of health care at all. When someone is injured or in pain, the prospect of making that difficult, sometimes dangerous journey down a mountain, through the woods, or across uneven terrain without a car or other form of transportation, can seem impossible. These problems existed in the mountains even prior to the hurricane, but their seriousness was highlighted and exacerbated by the storm’s demolishment of roads and other paths people would have previously used. Maria also damaged health clinics to the point that they didn’t reopen, making journeys even longer for some in the mountains. HHI’s mission of improving health access to set the foundation for individual and community development has led to its commitment to projects and partnerships throughout the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Maria. Whether it’s through reliable, safe water; community health workers; or a new community health clinic, together, we are all #BuildingBackBetter.