This week, NPQ will be running a series of articles on Puerto Rican nonprofits and how they’re operating and thinking in the wake of Hurricane Maria. It’s part of our effort to illuminate the processes of building anew and recreating from disaster in a region where inequity is already extreme. More generally, the stories provide a glimpse of the vision, reality, and experiences of those affected most by a devastating combination of growing global economic inequality, environmental change, and democratic failures. Because of that, we hope they will be useful far beyond the boundaries of Puerto Rico and its supporters.
We expect this series to be of interest to nonprofits, infrastructure organizations, and funders alike, so please help us distribute it. We expect to continue this conversation well into the future, so we welcome your comments and feedback. Many of you have already shared how the articles in this series to date have helped you better understand the complexities of the situation, the choices that need to be consciously made, and the prominent role nonprofits play.
As we drove to the Punta Santiago neighborhood in Humacao, where Hurricane Maria entered the island last September, what struck me first was the scale of the destruction and the long line of cars that snaked up the road we were on right up to the ocean. My guide, Nirvana Gonzalez Rosa, coordinator of Puerto Rico’s nonprofit network, Single Voice Movement (Movimiento Una Sola Voz), and I were looking for PECES (Programa de Educación Comunal de Entrega y Servicio, or Community Education, Delivery, and Service Program), a community-based nonprofit that provides education, services, and business development training. We had assumed that the line was for gasoline, but when we turned around and asked for PECES, we learned that the line led to it.
It was Tuesday, one of the two days a week that the organization serves as an emergency provisions distribution center. We pulled into the gate and drove up to the hub, the distribution point, and met Myrta Lebron, Vice President of Programs, and Dr. Pedro Morales, Associate Vice President of Administration. The main building is the school, but it has not been used as a school much since the storm. The student center has been converted into an emergency provisions warehouse. Some classrooms are available, but since Punta Santiago still doesn’t have electricity, it’s too hot to be indoors without air conditioning. Instead, the students congregate in the PECES basketball court. The open court has a roof, so it is relatively cool. There are tables on the court where students attend their limited schedule of classes. Their school day has changed dramatically; in addition to the limited schedule, their curriculum has been modified to include distribution work.
The teachers have integrated the students into the community’s recovery. For example, in the distribution center, students take part in the inventorying and practice real-world math.
Lebron says, “It’s the solidarity, the sensitivity, the compassion. They see, in the process of handing out provisions to the families, they stop thinking about themselves. Their thinking changes automatically. Then they’re saying, ‘Ma’am, ma’am, I’ll do it! I’ll go.’ They say to the teacher, ‘Sir, can I take a break? They’re stretched and I’m going to go help.’ And they come to us.”
PECES is very rigorous about its distribution process. Morales says,
When things get here, we take a photo, we take inventory of it immediately. At the moment of distribution, we take photos again. The people have to be registered. Our staff can detect whether the people in the line are from the community or not; we know them. If they are part of a family that has already received, we also know that because we have to make sure that what the donors sent us get to people that need it in a manner that is equitable. That’s the part that we can guarantee. The government makes grand efforts but when they give water, they give to everyone and they don’t know who they gave to. But we do know who, or who is not in line. We can identify missing people quickly and say, “Let’s reserve these 20 boxes of water to take them to these people, who are usually the bedridden.”
Punta Santiago is a beach community on the southeastern part of the island, where the mountains meet the ocean. Hurricane Maria brought the ocean in a mile and six feet high. Lebron and Morales recall the days after Maria in the Punta Santiago community of 5,800 residents. Lebron says,
Here, the ocean entered the community. The only supermarket it has was flooded; a little store inside the community also suffered damage. So, people didn’t have any place to shop because everything was closed. If you wanted to go to town because your car was saved—because here in Punta Santiago everything was lost because the water came under and even inside the cars, there was no way for your car to work— or if you wanted to go walking and you got to the closest shop in Villa Palmira, you would find that it was also destroyed. This was Walking Dead. It was horrible. People said, “Why didn’t you prepare?” We did prepare, but the water took everything. The rice supplies, everything was swimming, because the ocean came in like it was…it looked like the ocean was extended.
Morales says, “These people who had the ocean enter their house, they had to abandon their houses. In the middle of the water, with their kids and all, they had to go to higher ground, to their neighbors. These are people who typically didn’t know each other. There are houses that are two levels where there are two-to-three families today, meaning that they are providing refuge to those families.”
In Punta Santiago, the sewer system employs pumps and needs electricity to operate. In those days of the hurricane, the sewers were throwing what Puerto Ricans call “black waters” (sewer water) into the ocean. Morales says, “It’s a major public health issue. The land is contaminated because when the ocean entered there was the union of river water and sewer water and that was in the houses, on the floors.”
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A few days after the storm, Red Cross helicopters arrived with emergency provisions for the community. A week after the storm, PECES had put a call out to the community to come and help with clean up and distribution. Now, the organization has a weekly distribution schedule—Tuesdays and Thursdays from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon. PECES serves 500 distinct families every distribution day.
The day I visited there were other community events, all hosted by nonprofits. The multiservice center has food and a holiday celebration. The Catholic Church has food and Ada Monzon, “the first professional meteorologist on Puerto Rican television,” well known for her coverage of hurricane season and global warming.
Morales says, “One has to ask how after 90 days we’re still distributing food. And the answer is that while there is no electricity, we keep at it because people have lost everything, they’ve lost their vehicles, and don’t have a way to move around. So many people rely on organizations like ours.”
A recent El Nuevo Dia article notes that Humacao was officially declared “the hardest hit town” as “the fury of hurricane winds of over 155 miles per hour wiped out all the structures in its path.” The managers of the national parks and nature reserves estimate the recovery cost of the Punta Santiago vacation resort to be $5 million.
Morales says, “These are realities with which we have to live. How do we find alternatives so that what happened doesn’t provoke other people to leave Punta Santiago, move to other towns, leave the country? We have to focus on creating activities and opportunities so that people can employ themselves again and the region could develop economically again, flower again.”
PECES supports five micro-enterprises in the natural reserve in nearby Humacao. It provides entrepreneurs with startup, accounting, and other business training. PECES doesn’t receive any revenue from the micro-enterprises. It does its part to develop business and services for the community in the hopes of creating jobs and attracting other businesses and tourists.
PECES also aims to become sustainable. It acquired a water purifier that uses solar energy and wind energy, is connected to the water system, and generates 5,000 gallons of water a day. It is also wants a well that collects water from the roof. Morales says, “We’re working on that with other organizations so that that system can be integrated with the purifier and we can make the center water sustainable.”
Having a sustainable water supply would go a long way towards helping PECES become financially sustainable. Use of the four-inch water pipe that leads to the center costs PECES $2,000 a month before water costs. That’s $24,000 a year. Morales says, “What we want is that when atmospheric events come again in the future, the community has access to water.”
In terms of energy projects, PECES is trying to move away from dependence on the electrical grid and towards solar. Morales notes, “If we were able to become sustainable on both those fronts, it would save the organization $4,000–$5,000 a month.” Just that morning, PECES staff was looking at a farm where there’s an opportunity to partner with an organization to develop land for food for the community and at the same time create revenue for the organization from the sale of that food. The students are integrated into each of these projects. Before the hurricane, PECES created a curriculum to secure abandoned houses and rehabilitate them.
Morales concludes, “The days are intense, there are many hours of work, but since the hurricane, we say we don’t have time for thinking about it, to complain about it, to cry. So many good volunteers have joined, in spite of this crisis, and I think we have a new Puerto Rico for which we have to keep fighting.”
PECES is a perfect example of how everything connects to everything else. It’s the relationships that are the enabling mechanisms, the understanding of who is in the community, who needs extra support, what matters most. That native understanding of the place you’re in is critical; the dynamics matter—and it’ll matter in the rebuilding.
You can read about local Puerto Rican arts program Crearte here.