In Puerto Rico, a shortage of tarps and electricity means the misery continues for storm-weary people

Wooden houses with thin metal roofs took a terrible beating when Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in September. Now mold is beginning to cause a new set of problems in many dwellings. Photo by Loiza
Wooden houses with thin metal roofs took a terrible beating when Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in September. Now mold is beginning to cause a new set of problems in many dwellings. Photo by Loiza

Almost four weeks after Hurricane Maria caused widespread destruction on the island, emergency conditions have yet to ease for many people. And mold, coupled with the rainy season, is beginning to cause a new set of dangers.

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What would you do?

That’s the question Oxfam consultant Martha Thompson posed after returning from storm-battered Puerto Rico where Hurricane Maria laid waste to much of the island’s infrastructure, leaving people without power or water and scrambling, still, to survive nearly four weeks  after the disaster hit.

“It’s an emergency that a month in should not be an emergency--but it is,” said Thompson, presenting a series of real-life scenarios that Puerto Ricans have been grappling with since driving rain and winds of 155 miles per hour  took down the island’s entire electrical grid on Sept. 20.  Without electricity, a great deal of daily life grinds to a halt: there’s no light at night,  no fans or air conditioners to cool sweltering rooms, no easy way to charge phones or access the internet, no reliable way to keep hospitals running--the list goes on.

What would you do, Thompson asked, if your elderly mother, wheel-chair bound and desperately needing food and water, was stuck on the 17th floor of an apartment building in San Juan with no working elevator?

Or, what if the hurricane had drenched everything inside your house including all the mattresses, forcing you and your children to sleep on the floor where rats could be scampering? Or what if you lived in the countryside, stuck on the far side of a collapsed bridge, and you had no way to get drinking water because the storm knocked out your community’s delivery system? There’s no bottled water anywhere and a relief convoy hasn’t visited in days. What would you do?

Not everyone is suffering, Thompson pointed out. Those with money have options: They can get a hot meal in a restaurant; they can buy fuel for their cars and generators; they can purchase dry sheets and towels for their homes--and their homes, better built to begin with, may still have their roofs.

“It’s hard to describe the complexity of it,” said Thompson. “Parts of San Juan look normal; parts look ravaged.”

Tarps and mold

For many people, the needs are enormous, and essentials can be hard to get on the island.

“Tarps are desperately needed right now,” said Thompson, noting that one rural woman she encountered had relied on her sister in the Dominican Republic, where more than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, to send her one. “Some kind of lighting system is badly needed. There are all kinds of things you can’t get--insect repellent, [a type of ] batteries.”

But with the rainy season here, tarps top the list for some community leaders who are doing all they can to  help ensure people have shelter.  Thompson described the efforts of one woman who has been trying to get tarps for about 800 homes in different communities outside of San Juan: The woman approached the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which sent her to speak to the mayors of the communities. The mayors didn’t have tarps, so she went back to FEMA. No luck again. So next she called the tarp manufacturing companies in the US, and hit a dead end there, too.

“She has been up and down for these communities and has not been able to get these tarps,” said Thompson.

Those efforts are playing out against a new worry for families whose homes have been exposed to the elements: mold.

“A lot of times in hurricanes people forget to talk about just how hard it is to clean out your house, and the mold,” said Thompson. “It’s an increasing problem. People are just beginning to realize it.” Chlorine is what people need to try and tackle the problem, but the supplies are restricted.

“You need a whole kit to take mold off,” said Thompson. “You need to educate people about that. And so how do you do that when there is no communication?” She said the public health department will need to organize a full effort to address the mold issue.

“It seems everywhere you come up against another insurmountable problem," Thompson added.
Oxfam consultant Martha Thompson describes some of the many challenges Puerto Ricans are confronting in the wake of Hurricane Maria. But what has impressed her more than anything is the dedication they have to solving their own problems.

A bright spot: locals helping each other

But the determination that’s driving residents to solve their own problems is striking, Thompson said, and completely characteristic of the local response to this disaster.

“The one bright spot in this for me has been the Puerto Ricans--their good cheer in the middle of all this. People make jokes. People laugh. And people are helping each other so much,” Thompson said, ticking off some of the ways people have been pitching in to help each other. University students organized brigades to clean up trees, she said, chefs have been cooking and distributing meals, and communities have cleared their own roads.

“I look around at the Colaboratorio where I have my desk--people of all ages, working so hard and so dedicated. Just the mobilizing capacity of people getting up and doing something--it’s pretty amazing,” said Thompson, adding she hadn’t seen anything quite like it before.
What is Oxfam doing?

On Tuesday, Thompson headed back to the island to help with the emergency response partnerships Oxfam has launched both with the Office of the Mayor of San Juan and the Foundation for Puerto Rico.

With San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, we are purchasing and distributing portable butane gas stoves and gas tank refills so families can boil water for drinking and other uses. Our goal is to reach 1,000 households, including those with elderly members, single mothers, and children with disabilities.

With clean water in short supply around San Juan, and across the island, people are relying on bottled water--if they can get it. If they can’t, they are making the hard choice of using unsafe water. Without electricity, boiling water to make it safe for drinking and cooking has been difficult for many people. The butane stoves will help solve that problem.

Our grant to help the Foundation for Puerto Rico will allow it to buy and deliver supplies to 2,250 elderly people including extra food, diapers, and batteries.

In addition, we are advocating for the US government to full fund the response and rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico while ensuring the funds have no strings attached. We are also urging the federal government to provide critical debt relief for the islands $70 billion debt.

More information

MIT D-Lab Humanitarian Innovation program


Martha Thompson, MIT D-Lab Lecturer and Humanitarian Innovation Specialist