In the fall of 2017, Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico with its terrifying 155-mph winds, leaving devastation in its wake. It was the worst natural disaster in the island’s history.
As we on Martha’s Vineyard begin to put the final touches on homes and businesses before embracing the Island’s annual influx of tourists, in Puerto Rico, many people are patiently waiting to return to theirs after almost eight months. The news stories of the devastation suffered by a resilient people, who are U.S. citizens like myself, inspired me to choose a different kind of vacation this year.
Instead of going to Alaska via the Princess cruise ship the Star Princess earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to volunteer in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, with All Hands and Hearts. It is a nonprofit organization that addresses the immediate and long-term needs of communities after natural disasters.
While researching volunteer opportunities in Puerto Rico, I learned that All Hands and Hearts has become a known presence on the Island, and is seen as part of the community. Originally founded in 2004 after the Indian Ocean tsunami, All Hands and Hearts was created as a way for unskilled good Samaritans to get their boots on the ground. The organization has earned an A+ rating by charity watch organizations for giving money directly to the people in need. Since January, volunteer fundraising alone has reached $183,000 solely for Puerto Rico.
The realization that this would be a vacation like no other hit me when I received instructions on what to pack for the 10-day trip. Instead of the usual vacation clothes and sundries, I had to pack mosquito netting, insect spray, a water filtration system, steel-toed boots, work gloves, safety goggles, rain gear, pillow, lots of socks, and figure out how to jam all of that, plus a sleeping bag, into one duffel bag. Needless to say, it took many trial runs of editing and changing packing styles in order for it all to fit!
After a safety briefing and making sure I had my personal protective equipment (PPE), I took the short journey to begin my first day on the job at a home being rebuilt. I was surprised at first by its condition, with leaks throughout due to a deteriorated roof, but I was more taken back by the homeowners’ smiles. They exhibited a resilience and appreciation not found every day. One would think that these people would be bitter, cold, and downright angry for being ignored for so many months, yet they could not have been more kind and welcoming.
They were happy to see us because All Hands and Hearts is the only group in the area that follows through with its assessments. The team garnered trust when it began to reassess homes that were originally out of scope during the recovery phase, and All Hands and Hearts determined it would now be able to commit resources to help the homeowners.
With a goal to go to Puerto Rico and help where I was needed, I had no expectations other than doing hard work. It was a far cry from my professional experience as a hotelier and a teacher; I found that at the beginning, construction was definitely not a strength of mine.
I was, however, astounded by the love and light in this small group of individuals I worked with, who gave up their time and energy to help people. It has been some time since I spent a night in dorm-style housing, but the volunteers and staff were so kind and respectful I didn’t have a care in the world sleeping next to 30 bodies. Each night the coqui, frogs native to Puerto Rico, sang us a lullaby.
More than 246 volunteers have made a commitment since Jan. 24, and completed a whopping 75 roofs, including concrete and corrugated galvanized iron (CGI) as well as performing muck and gut work (removing mud and debris) on 33 homes.
Coping with a hurricane and no power for several months is bad enough, but what makes it even worse is a lack of stability. A week before I arrived in San Juan, the entire power grid failed again. The staff and volunteers described it as a scary moment. They had experienced many power outages since arriving, but nothing on an island-wide scale. It was a time of wondering whether they would be able to stay, scrambling to make certain emergency phones were charged, and hoping the backup generators would be reliable. Waiting in lines for fuel took hours. Power was restored in San Juan later that night, but it took some time for lights to come on at the volunteers’ base camp.
Looking at the general poor condition of the homes, perched on a mountainside, raises the question, Why not demolish them and start over? I realized that is easier said than done for people who live in homes their families have owned for generations. They are tucked high in the mountains, surrounded by picturesque green rolling hills, and I can truly understand why the homeowners are so determined and firm in their decision to keep their homes intact. Watching the roaming chickens duck in and out of the wildflowers brought joy to my soul. Even the animals seemed to take pride in their surroundings. A horrific event may have wiped the slate clean, but the underlying foundation remains.
We are not simply rebuilding, but educating homeowners. This will not be the last hurricane to hit this beautiful island, so it is important to teach preparedness. I lost count of how many hurricane clips were secured from the foundations to the ridge beams. Yes, the first step is to get the Puerto Rican people back into their homes, but they must also be educated on how to handle future devastation.
Unfortunately, volunteers are the only significant entity on the island. Immediately after the hurricane, the presence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was for the purpose of distributing tarps to homes with damaged roofs. While tarps are helpful, of course, they are only designed to last a few weeks. Nearly eight months since the hurricane, many homes still have tarps that are now leaking, and ruining what few possessions remain. As a result, dangerous mold has developed. Unfortunately, there has been no significant follow-up from FEMA in terms of creating a safe, livable environment for these homeowners.
I returned to Martha’s Vineyard very aware of the contrast with Puerto Rico. Whenever I turn on a light or hear rain on a roof that is not leaking or covered by a tarp, I’m grateful. It was a life-changing vacation that has inspired me to get the word out. Many of our U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are desperate for the basics of life, and still need our help.
Jay Deyette is a manager at Mansion House Inn. he is also a certified teacher, and teaches English privately to non-native speakers. You will find him every Friday morning leading Sun-Up Cycle at the Mansion House Inn Health Club. He has called the Vineyard home for almost seven years, most of them in Vineyard Haven.
To learn more about All Hands and Hearts, and to donate, go online to give.allhandsandhearts.org/fundraiser/1445012.