Reflecting on post-Maria Puerto Rico As a full-time employee of the NYC Office of Emergency Management, NYU Wagner student Elizabeth Angeles (MPA Candidate 2018) was deployed to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

The following is an excerpt from Elizabeth's full blog post on Puerto Rico.

I spent two weeks deployed in Puerto Rico after La Isla del Encanto was impacted by Hurricane Maria, the 10th most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic. I arrived in Puerto Rico on September 27th, seven days after the storm made landfall. Puerto Rico, the beautiful island where my mother was born and raised, was destroyed and left without power.

The circumstances

  • Puerto Rico was impacted by two category 4-5 hurricanes in the span of two weeks. (For reference, Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the costliest storms in US history, made landfalls as category 1 and 3, respectively.)
  • The entire island lost power and telecommunications after Hurricane Maria. When we arrived, all of the island’s elected officials had not been accounted for because telecommunications were compromised. Communication was, and continues to be, a huge challenge for the relief efforts.
  • Puerto Rico’s economy and infrastructure was weakened, long before the storms. The unemployment rate in Puerto Rico is more than double that of the national average and Puerto Rico’s population has been in steady decline since 2000.
  • Federal resources and attention are stressed; Currently, 85 percent of the FEMA workforce is in the field supporting 28 disasters nationwide.
  • This year marks the 100th anniversary of Puerto Rican US citizenship. Yet, a recent poll found that only 54% of Americans knew Puerto Ricans were fellow citizens at the time of the storm, and therefore, nearly half did not know that this was a matter of domestic concern.

Our mission

Our mission in Puerto Rico was to support the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency (PREMA) in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Alongside my NYC Emergency Management team, I worked out of the Joint Field Office (JFO) established in the convention center in San Juan, collaborating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), PREMA, and the Governor’s Office, La Fortaleza, to support all 78 municipalities on the island.

When we arrived at the airport in San Juan, the heat was instantly unbearable. Noticeably, by the time we were back at the airport to fly home two weeks later, the air conditioning was running. Small steps toward progress was a theme for us during our time in Puerto Rico.

Our team at San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín Airport with Christina, member of the PREMA leadership team.

Driving from San Juan to Rio Grande, commuting an hour each way every morning and evening felt like we were driving through a cold, winter scene. The tropical scene was replaced with barren trees and down power lines. We knew we were out of San Juan ten minutes into the ride when all of our cell signals dropped. We were grateful to have a signal for even that long. As the rain continued to fall during our stay, cleared streets flooded again due to clogged drainage systems leftover from the storm. I thought about the people who no longer had roofs on their homes or who had no way of keeping the garbage from flowing in. The damage was apparent.

La gente

I worked and met with some of the greatest people. Even under some of the most difficult circumstances, our colleagues at PREMA, who were all affected by the storm, graciously worked long days with us. They had been working long days since before Irma had impacted the island. Their own facilities had been compromised after Maria and they were adjusting to the new pace at the JFO. Some were also sleeping at the JFO because fuel was so hard to come by. The wait for gas was hours long, even for priority clients. Additionally, the bilingual activation had some inherent challenges for everyone and I was grateful to be there to play the role of interpreter whenever it was needed.

It was a pleasure to collaborate with La Fortaleza’s Chief Innovation Officer, Glorimar. She leads the team behind status.pr, the public information website that displays the status of services and levels of progress on the island.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló, the youngest governor in the US, highlighted the preexisting constraints and circumstances of Puerto Rico to emphasize the need for serious and concerted efforts to help Puerto Rico move forward.

“I invite you to consider why Puerto Rico is in the current state of disadvantage and inequality … Think of Puerto Ricans as your own constituents … It is a moral imperative because we are all US citizens, but more importantly, because we are all equal as human beings.” —Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico

Who will be there for the better and stronger Puerto Rico?

Emergencies exacerbate preexisting inequalities. This is an island that was impacted before Maria hit and an island that was at a disadvantage, inherent in its status and history. It is an island that has contributed so much to the United States of America, including currently some 330,000 veterans and some 35,000 Puerto Ricans in active duty service. My mission on the island has ended but the work is clearly not finished.

Take action

  1. Donate: Donating cash is generally better than donating in kind after emergencies. This allows flexibility so the money can be spent on determined needs, which change quickly over the course of a response and recovery. Suggestions: Unidos Por Puerto RicoHispanic Federation, “Unidos” (you can also support this initiative with Lin Manuel Miranda’s Almost Like Praying); Somos Una VozResilient Power Puerto Rico (Coastal Marine Resource Center)
  2. Call congress to advocate for a flexible aid package for Puerto Rico and to help repeal the Jones Act.
  3. Join or spread the word about openings at FEMA, including local hurricane recovery work opportunities for survivors.
  4. Volunteer: Sunset Park Relief Coalition; Rebuild Puerto Rico (Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College)
  5. Stay informed and updated on the situation in Puerto Rico as the response and recovery evolves: El “Centro”, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College has a platform for updates; This Miami Herald article offers the most comprehensive overview on the response that I have seen so far.
  6. Help spread accurate information about available services, such as the opening of a Service Center in New York City for those affected by recent hurricanes.
  7. Learn about the history of Puerto Rico—the contributions and the sacrifices of its people.

Why Wagner?

I have been able to apply practical frameworks from my courses at NYU Wagner into the work that I do for the City of New York, particularly looking at opportunities to collaborate with other sectors and leverage best practices. The most valuable aspect of my experience at NYU Wagner thus far, however, has been the network of professionals I have gained. The friends and connections I have made at Wagner have enhanced my inter-agency work in my role at NYC Emergency Management and in my role supporting nonprofits in New York City. I have grown a network of people that are committed to making an impact in our communities and this is something that will last beyond my last semester—throughout my years as an alumna.

Read Elizabeth's full post on her time in Puerto Rico:

Elizabeth has compiled a list of Puerto Rican led initiatives to support Puerto Rico:

Read Elizabeth's Q&A with the Coordinator of the Evacuee Service Center at New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS):

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