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Puerto Rico is a long term commitment

December 7, 2017

In the English language, we tend to throw around a lot of phrases without really knowing what they mean or thinking about what they mean.


“She walked in the room and I almost died” is a good example.  You did not stop breathing.  Blood did not suddenly gush from your body.  Something heavy did not narrowly miss hitting you in the skull.  You did NOT almost DIE.


“I feel like I am fighting a losing battle” would be another example.  I myself use this one a lot, but in reality, I am not surrounding by the dead bodies of my fellow comrades, there is not a think haze from gunshots in the air, and my homeland is not about to lose its freedoms.  I use the phrase when I am frustrated and emotions mix well with the words as I proclaim that I am fighting a losing battle.


With all that said, there times when these phrases could be used without much, if any exaggeration.


The recovery efforts in Puerto Rico look like a losing battle right now, but that is not acceptable.


Don’t get me wrong, there are miracles every day and great people doing great things; it is just that Puerto Rico is a population of 3.4 million people in desperate need of more than just sustenance.  They need a salvation that is only going to come from long-term commitments.


To begin with, PR is an island.  Unlike a tornado striking Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where help can drive in from all over the country (and did), PR is hard to reach.  What makes it an island is the fact that it is not CONNECTED to anything, especially its greatest source of potential help.


At the beginning of the response, hundreds of flights were made available by generous pilots and corporations so we could fly down with equipment and supplies.  Equally, we could evac people off the island as well.  Unfortunately, over the weeks that followed, people took advantage of these flights, sometimes even arranging for free flights for the sick and selling the seats to the rich.  As with all things, the flights all but ended.  Pilots threw up their hands and said enough.


Of course, we had access to boats too. After the same scenario as the flights kept happening, the donated ships also became a thing of the past.


People + material goods was the name of the game.  If you did not send goods, the people were not sustained and if you sent goods and no people, the goods disappeared.  One big challenge quickly became the criminal activity. We encountered one company that had generously sent communication equipment to a group on the island “doing disaster response” only to find out too late that the items were being sold for retail to the wealthy for profit.  There are hundreds of examples of this.


Then of course there is the broken chain scenario that erodes trust.  Group A asks for widgets. Group B says they have widgets but actually do not.  Group B finds Group C and they have a lot of widgets so Group B tells group A they found widgets before talking to Group C. Sadly, Group A had already reached out to Group C as well so when Group B calls, group A tells Group C they do not need the widgets.  Group C then gives them to Group D and tells Group B they no longer have them. Group B now tells Group A they no longer have the widgets. Group A now has to figure out how to start over.


This process took three weeks.  The widget was medical equipment. People died.

Aside from the chaos of the response itself, there is the politics. Protests have been ongoing but are now getting organized as groups are showing up on the island. Politicians on the island do not like the Administration and the two armies begin to do battle amidst the debris at great cost to efficiency and teamwork that COULD have existed if everyone would have stayed focused on the REAL problem at hand… restoring PR.


Money is and is not an issue.  Millions upon millions of dollars and goods have been donated and sent, but dispersement is at the mercy of the agenda of whoever it was all sent to.  So there is money out there… but it is slowing down due to the length of time the response and recovery is taking.  Mixed messaging hurts the process as well.  Facebook posts showing two different stories on the same problem are not helping.


“We need batteries”

“Power is restored”

Both stories on the same website. What?!


Of course, there is the amazing economy of PR.  We are not trying to restore PR to its former, rather we need to do much more than that.  Even before Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rican economy was in a multi-year economic depression. Since 2006, the Puerto Rican economy has contracted by 10 percent and it has lost 10 percent of its population to the mainland. At the same time, in the context of its budget adjustment program, over the next decade, the Puerto Rican economy was officially projected to decline by another 10 percent.  This would make the island's depression worse than that of Greece.


I remember this dilemma on a smaller scale in New Orleans after Katrina (and yes, I said SMALLER).  Neighborhoods that were literally crumbling before Katrina suddenly had to be fixed to allow for residents to return.  There is no way to build a collapsing house.  One could not simply assist these people in returning to life before Katrina…


Hurricane Maria has substantially darkened what was already a bleak economic outlook. Not only has very major permanent damage been done to the island's economic infrastructure, rather the hurricane has dealt a major body blow to the island's economic output. As a measure of the hit to the island's economic outlook, it is estimated that much of the island remains without electricity and in the three months since the hurricane, the island has lost more than 5 percent of its population to the mainland.


Of course, there are the bad decisions too.  As in the case of Hugo, Katrina, 9-11 and other large scale disasters, not every decision is the right one, not every decision is the wrong one, but if you are encountering something that was truly unprecedented, there is no way of knowing until it is too late.


The decision by PREPA (Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority) to retain contractor Whitefish Energy Holdings LLC to help restore electricity after the storm drew sharp criticism almost immediately.  Help was available from the United States, yet PR chose not to access it.  At the two month mark since the grid was destroyed on September 20, 49% of the power had been restored (but is still experiencing power outages in the restored areas).


Right or wrong, this decision and the following hearings, bad press and finger pointing has made fundraising hard for organizations like ours as we reach out for donations to purchase or place solar systems and folks blame lack of oversight for the lack of power.  It simply puts nobody in a giving mood…


And now this brings us to fatigue.


People are tired of the situation.  This is not different than after any other disaster; people jump to help, encounter what I have been writing about, and after a few months, the numbers dwindle and other disasters, most easier to deal with, become the focus.

Now, today, there are teams that have been on the island since the very beginning; and they are burned out.  Support has not been Federal or territorial, it has been Amazon shipments, donated supplies, traded goods and personally financed.



To draw attention to one such ongoing mission, look at Jason Maddy, He is a former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant and Calvary Scout, young, energetic.  Maddy has been journeying into Puerto Rico’s outback to reach the hard-to-reach. Medical supplies, food and water has been brought to these remote areas almost daily.  Not 4 days go by without Maddy’s team discovering a small mountain community that has yet not seen any help since the storm.  Mudslides, infrastructure and collapsed bridges have not helped matters, yet the team continues.


But its not just Maddy, for he could not bring anything to these people without those that give it to him, and they got from someone that brought it or shipped it after someone else heard about the need and networked to find it a while someone else assisted by finding the person or group to pay for it.


HUNDREDS of hours each week spent on logistics by people who, in a normal world could be making upwards of $150 to $200 per hour all donating this time.  And that time is running out.


Scores of people have reached that moment where they realize they cannot go on without someone else stepping up. And so we are here.  We presently are communicating with teams on the ground and at desks around the globe that cannot continue without steady support.


Our partner, the XIII Folds Foundation is struggling to find the donors that will keep these logistics folks going so the help keeps going so the Maddy’s of the world keep going so that Puerto Rico will survive.  We have committed to helping XIII Folds find that financial structure.




The winds of politics are mixing with the deluge of criticism.  The flood of apathy is only following the waves of scandals.  Puerto Rico is still in another hurricane and we are in need of rescuers.


BELOW: A short clip that shows the travel challenges being faced by teams in Puerto Rico.



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