Helping Those Who Need It Most in Puerto Rico

October 18, 2017

 After Hurricane Maria, millions are still without power or water. UNICEF USA is pitching in to get supplies to the most vulnerable.

One month after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, 1 million Americans on the island have no running water and 3 million are without electrical power. UNICEF USA Senior Officer, Humanitarian Emergencies and Executive Communications Michelle Centeno recently returned from Puerto Rico, where UNICEF USA is working with UPS and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's Empire State Relief and Recovery Effort for Puerto Rico to deliver emergency supplies. 

We flew into San Juan in the pouring rain. Hurricane Maria ravaged the entire island, but it's the remote areas that are hurting the most. UNICEF USA is working with local groups to set up distribution centers that provide people with the supplies they desperately need, like safe drinking water and hygiene essentials. It is reassuring to be connected with highly respected, well-run organizations that are deeply invested in their communities, and use data and intelligence to make sure no one is overlooked.

Major flooding after Hurricane Maria has left large sections of Puerto Rico underwater. Millions are still without power or water. UNICEF USA moved quickly to get supplies to the most vulnerable.

Under normal conditions, the drive from San Juan to Humacao, on Puerto Rico's southeast coast, would take about 45 minutes. It took us nearly three hours. Road conditions were terrible, with debris and pools of water blocking access. This highlights the challenges most folks face in trying to access relief and assistance from the mainland.

The hygiene kits we were delivering contain essential items to help people survive their current situation: buckets, soap, water purification tablets. Right now, even if you wait in line and are able to get inside a store, they are typically out of these supplies.

UNICEF and partners are delivering much needed water and hygiene supplies to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Maria Cruz, right, from community partner P.E.C.E.S., delivers a UNICEF hygiene kit to Luis Espinosa in Humacao, Puerto Rico. 

The ongoing rainy season is making living conditions even worse. People have rigged up tarps to stay dry inside their damaged homes, but every time it rains, the makeshift shelters get soaked and fall apart again.

People are improvising livelihoods as best they can. We met one woman who said she has been hand washing her clothes and then hanging them up to dry on a pole that fell through her roof during the storm. She was so happy to open the box from UNICEF USA and find a clothesline and clothespins.

The fact that someone is thinking about them, their needs, and in particular their dignity, means so much to Puerto Ricans. 

After Hurricane Maria damaged his house and knocked out his power and water supply, Gulf War veteran Rafael Torres received a family hygiene kit from UNICEF.

Gulf War veteran Rafael Torres's home was severely damaged by Hurricane Maria. Heavy rains have left his yard underwater; he used wooden planks to create a walkway connecting his house to the road. 

Reaching homes to deliver hygiene kits was a challenge: we walked over rubble and through puddles of contaminated water.

We delivered a kit to Rafael Torres. Like most of the people we met, his house was severely damaged by the storm and he is living without electricity or running water. Heavy rains have turned his yard into a moat; he used wooden planks to create a walkway connecting his front door to the road. His entire living room had been destroyed and the remnants, including his sofa and coffee table, lay exposed in the yard. Torres is a Gulf War veteran; he said he never expected he'd be in a position where he'd be the one to need help. He was happy to receive a box from UNICEF USA. 

UNICEF and partners are rushing much needed drinking water and hygiene supplies to victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

 Adilesli Rodriguez and Gloribel Ortiz, left, from local community organization P.E.C.E.S., deliver a UNICEF hygiene kit to Elsa Martinez and Nadeisha Rivera, residents of Humacao. 

People were really battered in Humacao. There was no cellphone or internet access, so after the storm, they couldn't reach their relatives to tell them they had survived. They are cut off from the rest of the world. Communities have to organize in a grassroots way in order to communicate. 

Despite the destruction and devastation, we were able to experience firsthand the sense of community and willingness of people to come together and help one another, even if they themselves had lost everything. We heard plenty of stories about how seeing UNICEF USA in their communities was heartwarming. They never thought we would be there to help them: they usually donate and mobilize to help UNICEF help kids around the world.

She was so happy to open the box from UNICEF USA and find a clothesline and clothespins. The fact that someone is thinking about them, their needs, and in particular their dignity, means so much to Puerto Ricans now. 

These lovely, resilient people remain hopeful and that's truly inspiring. They even offered their support with anything we might need help with; they know that there are other kids around the world who have needs. 

I never got the chance to visit Puerto Rico before the hurricane, but I always heard the island is beautiful. And now I have learned firsthand that the people who live there are, too.

UNICEF USA's Justin Hemenway and Michelle Centeno visited Puerto Rico in October 2017 after Hurricane Maria.

UNICEF USA's Michelle Centeno and Justin Hemenway visited Rafael Torres outside his damaged house in Humacao, Puerto Rico.

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Banner photo at top: Kendall Ortiz and Damian Orta in storm-damaged Humacao, Puerto Rico. All photos by Paola Isabel Hernandez for UNICEF USA.