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Months after the storm, hurricane relief efforts persist

Pictured above is the team that led fundraising efforts for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. They received attention for the plane that they chartered to bring supplies to the island, but have continued their work since.  (credit: Gabriel Ostolaza) Pictured above is the team that led fundraising efforts for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. They received attention for the plane that they chartered to bring supplies to the island, but have continued their work since. (credit: Gabriel Ostolaza)

April 20 marks the seven-month anniversary of the day Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Those following the crisis might know about the fundraising work of junior and decision science major Rosana Guernica and her team, which resulted in several chartered flights to the island that brought supplies and evacuated medical patients who couldn’t receive treatment on the island because there was inadequate power. Though they received quite a bit of recognition for their initial fundraising efforts, they have never stopped helping the island.

In an interview with The Tartan, three members of the team — Guernica, along with Gabriel Ostolaza, a masters student in the College of Engineering, and Paloma Hernandez, a junior in BXA — described the current issues facing Puerto Rico and the areas they are focusing on in their volunteer work, which they are formalizing into a nonprofit complete with a donated office space.

Guernica’s fundraising efforts are still going strong, even seven months after the storm. This month, Pittsburgh Filmmakers held a fundraiser event for her work, with Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto and San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, where they screened a documentary about the team’s work to help the island. In total, they raised $5,500 for their upcoming projects.

When I asked the team members to describe the island’s situation today, they came to a consensus that there seemed to be a new normal taking hold. “People are going back to their regular lives as much as they can — they’re going back to school, to work,” said Guernica. “But, it’s really different from how our home usually is, like half the traffic lights don’t work...it’s just a new normal that everyone’s accepted,” she noted.

Ostolaza points out that because of this, the media spotlight has not been on the island as much because people seem to be going back to their normal lives, despite the fact that it is not a good normal. Hernandez further states that morale is still low because of the conditions on the island. There are still thousands of islanders who have had no power since Irma or Maria, and the electrical grid is still quite unstable — the day before the interview, the entire island went into a blackout that lasted for about a day.

As Puerto Rico has shifted out of emergency response mode and into recovery mode, so have the team’s projects. A more recent project was helping people who wanted or needed to return to the island but couldn’t travel commercially. For instance, they helped two girls who were bedridden with microcephaly return to the island. The girls were forced to leave the mainland, because their family couldn’t afford out-of-pocket treatment and were denied Medicaid and other healthcare benefits.

Another critical issue regarding Puerto Rico is the housing issues facing the hurricane’s survivors. On the island, residents are having trouble getting government aid because many of them could not prove that they owned their homes, as a lot of ownership information had never been formalized. Guernica recalled the story of a family in Puerto Rico — the family home used to belong to the grandmother before she passed away. She left the house to her daughter but never formalized this in a written will, which created a host of bureaucratic problems for the family.

The housing issues extend to the island’s evacuees on the mainland as well. This past Monday, 22 families currently staying in Philadelphia were notified that their Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance would run out on Friday, April 20, and so they would be evicted. Returning to the island wasn’t an option, because their homes have not been rebuilt. The families couldn’t find jobs in Philadelphia, because the city has taken in so many Puerto Rican evacuees, and public housing in Philadelphia wasn’t an option either as they had decade-long waiting lists.

The day of the interview, Guernica was anxiously contacting various nonprofit organizations in hopes of relocating them to Pittsburgh, away from the housing crisis in Philadelphia. Fortunately, as CBS News correspondent David Begnaud reported, FEMA decided at the last minute to extend temporary shelter assistance to May 14, giving these families some breathing room.

The team also has two longer-term projects planned, both of which are focused on addressing problems that plagued the island after the hurricane. One of the projects was motivated by the severe communication outage Puerto Rico faced in the initial days after the hurricane. “People could not communicate with each other; the government couldn’t communicate with anybody...we actually lost a lot of lives [due to this lack of communication] because people were throwing themselves into the street to find their families and they were getting in the way of the first responders,” Ostolaza explained.

Chaos reigned; although a curfew was put into place, in practice, many people didn’t obey it because understandably, they were so anxious to find their missing loved ones. Thus, a conception Guernica’s team has for their next project is to use drones to implement an emergency communication system that will connect the major cities together even when the primary power and communications grids are down. In the private meeting the team had with Mayor Cruz when she visited Carnegie Mellon, Cruz seemed especially excited about this communication system, according to Guernica.

The other project focuses on addressing individual emergency preparedness. “A lot of people. ..just didn’t have the information necessary to prepare well,” Guernica said. Thus, they aim to distribute waterproof emergency preparation boxes. They will contain instructions on what type of food to buy, and can be used to store important documents and credit cards, as well as supplies such as matches that one wouldn’t want to get wet.

The effects of the hurricane in Puerto Rico is an evolving story, and it is far from being back to normal.

“We still need help, and there’s a lot more Americans can do,” Ostolaza said. Besides donating to causes that support the island, Americans can “educate themselves on what’s happening,” he said, which can happen with something as simple as a Google search, and could lead to figuring out potential ways to help. Guernica hopes that people realize that anyone can do what they are doing with enough willpower — the team primarily consists of students who are in their late teens or early twenties who are simultaneously functioning as students.

Although many call these students angels and heroes for their work, the sadness at the past and worry for the future runs strong among the team members. “It’s fun and it’s great to be recognized, but...you never think about being recognized,” Ostolaza said. “It’s not like we crossed the finish line, and we’re celebrating,” added Guernica. “We are worried sick [and] depressed. After we finished our trips, it really sunk in with a lot of us. And, since we were no longer in emergency response mode, we started to mourn what happened to our island...On our last trip, three people almost died,” she said, with audible emotion. “It feels like it’s just a grain of sand,” Hernandez stated.

For the team, the nature of the people on the island is a silver lining. They described the people as resilient and determined to rebuild. People helped each other even when they had little for themselves. Hernandez recalled that when she was on the island, locals would ask her if she needed anything; she was shocked at this as the locals still had so many unmet needs. When the team was on the island, Ostolaza’s mom would cook for all ten team members — even though she only had a single working stovetop, she still managed to cook up rice, beans, plantains, and chicken. “The Puerto Rican spirit gives me hope,” said Guernica.