CMU student charters plane to help victims of Hurricane Maria

Credit: Rebecca Enright/ Credit: Rebecca Enright/ Credit: Rosana Guernica Credit: Rosana Guernica Credit: Rosana Guernica Credit: Rosana Guernica Credit: Rosana Guernica Credit: Rosana Guernica

On Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria barreled into Puerto Rico as a major category 4 storm, battering the island with winds swirling at over 100 miles per hour.

It killed dozens, destroyed the island’s infrastructure, and turned thousands and thousands of lives upside-down forever.

Today, over a month after Maria devastated the island, Puerto Rico is still in the grips of a humanitarian crisis. Approximately three-quarters of the island remains without power and is relying on generators. Because of the widespread infrastructure damage, there have been difficulties shipping supplies to many areas. Many Puerto Ricans are desperate to leave, especially those that have chronic medical conditions who have not been able to access needed medical care after Maria.

When Carnegie Mellon junior and decision science major Rosana Guernica — who is a native Puerto Rican herself — heard about the plight her homeland had been thrown into, she decided that she had to do something to help. Guernica had heard about families leaving the island after Maria and wanted to find out more about how they were doing it with the airport still offline (at that time, it was about a week after the storm hit).

“[T]he government and hospitals were having immense difficulty finding life-saving aid,” she recalled in an interview with The Tartan. “I inquired as to how, and found out they had evacuated the island by hiring private charters. I then decided to start fundraising to be able to evacuate patients who would die if they did not leave the island, while bringing the life-saving aid the island desperately needed,” Guernica said, when discussing the initial conception for her humanitarian project.

She started a crowdfunding fundraiser on YouCaring and has raised over $128,000 as of Oct. 27.

In a statement explaining her fundraiser, Guernica wrote: “We are desperate to help the island and don’t seem to know how. No one person can solve these issues. No one government can help the island... It is time to come together to take action. It is time to help the most vulnerable before it is too late. There are infants who need formula, diabetic victims without insulin, and cancer patients in need of immediate evacuations.”

The supplies were mostly fundraised through contacts within Carnegie Mellon, but some read about the campaign in the press and reached out to Guernica wanting to help.
So far, she has successfully completed three missions, the last of which finished on Oct. 28. In total, the first two missions have already delivered approximately 3,500 pounds of medical supplies to various hospitals and medical practices around the island as well as general aid — like clothes, diapers, medicine, supplemental meals and food — to the CAPS Foundation, which works with pediatric cancer patients.

The missions have also evacuated 28 patients who are in immediate need of medical care and their caretakers to the U.S. mainland. This included people who need dialysis, who had surgeries scheduled before Maria, who need insulin and do not have the electricity to keep it cold, and who need chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

As for the third mission, Guernica told The Tartan that she planned to “bring down 16,000 lbs of food, water filters, solar panels, medicine, and medical supplies to the island and...leave with 60 medical patients and evacuees in need of immediate and proper medical attention.”

She and her partners in the mission — Gabriel Ostolaza, an engineering Masters student, Jose López, Javier Spivey, a junior drama major, and Ivan Cao-Berg (MCS 2009) on the second mission — were struck by the extent of the storm damage that was fully evident from the air.

“Flying over our beautiful island and seeing all the damage done to our vegetation was by far the most heartbreaking,” Guernica reflected in the interview. She described the pre-storm Puerto Rico as “a happy place full of vibrant people and colors,” and was devastated to see all of that taken away by the hurricane. “Typically, flying over the island means seeing bright blue waters and rivers, complemented by a lush, green, overgrown vegetation. Instead, we witnessed coastlines still filtering out debris, brown running rivers, and vast stretches of brown, broken trees who lost all their leaves to Maria,” she said.

Spivey gave a similar reflection about the way the island has changed in his interview with The Tartan. He described seeing San Juan’s Teodoro Moscoso bridge from the airplane window, which was famous for its rows of alternating American and Puerto Rican flags. “It was barren. The hurricane had ripped each flag off into the wind.” He added that the missing flags were “nothing compared to the blue dots of tarps covering houses and piles of trees I could see from the plane.”

Guernica also described one incident that was especially touching to her. Before the return flight with the evacuees, she and her team had put Carnegie Mellon teddy bears in each airplane seat, giving the evacuees a cheerful and comforting surprise. “During the flight back, I walked down the aisle and found many of [the evacuees] asleep with their teddy bear in their arms,” she remembered. “It was... very see grown adults, most [of whom] were 50 years and older, so comforted by a small gesture.”

In the wake of Hurricane Maria and the long road the island has to recovery, many have criticized President Trump’s administration for mishandling the crisis and responding too slowly. Spivey shares that same opinion. He says that the president has shown a “lack of sensitivity and ignorance” in regards to Puerto Rico, and says that “[w]e can no longer wait around for our government to make the change we need. We the people can finally make America great.”

Guernica is realistic about the outlook for Puerto Rico: she knows that “[t]he situation is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.” However, she sees that as a call to action for Americans to help fellow Americans stuck in dire straits. “Never underestimate the impact one person can have, especially in such a dire crisis,” she concludes.

If you would like to help with Guernica’s campaign, you can donate at the link here: