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.
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.
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.
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.
Help Puerto Rico get back on its feet. 90 percent of every dollar donated goes directly to helping the children of Puerto Rico.
Banner photo at top: Kendall Ortiz and Damian Orta in storm-damaged Humacao, Puerto Rico. All photos by Paola Isabel Hernandez for UNICEF USA.