Spotlight Exclusives

Puerto Rico: Nonprofits Recalibrate after Hurricane Maria

Lillian E. Agosto-Maldonado Lillian E. Agosto-Maldonado, posted on

Fragility. Unease. Uncertainty.

These three words describe the mood of nonprofit organizations trying to help low-income communities in Puerto Rico as daunting challenges remain almost a year after Hurricane Maria slammed into the Caribbean island. The island’s government last week estimated the death toll from Maria at 2,975 after insisting for months that less than 100 people had died as a result of the storm.

After a physical, social, and emotional debacle, the island is inching forward in its recovery from the most devastating natural disaster in its history, a monster, Category 4 storm that touched down Sept. 20 of last year. The difficulty of the road back to some kind of normalcy after Maria is testament to the power of a storm that shut down communications and power for months and left physical scars from landslides and flooding, as well as to the slowness and inadequacy of the federal government’s response. Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged and an estimated 280,000 people have fled the island.

Positioned as an important player in this time of recovery, nonprofit, community-based organizations serve vulnerable communities and disadvantaged populations that have more needs today than ever. With an increase in the poverty rate, reported in November 2017, from 44.3 percent to 52.3 percent, according to the Censal Information Center (CIC) of the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey campus, the island’s neediest residents continue to face immense difficulties. Almost 1,000 people remain in hotel rooms after losing their housing, and a federal judge ruled last week that federal housing assistance will be stopped by mid-September.

For Janice Petrovich, executive director of the Puerto Rico Funders Network, the impact of Hurricane Maria adds to the economic crisis that was already taking place on the Island. “The community-based organizations were feeling the impact before de Hurricane Maria,” she said.

Organizations collected debris, distributed water and essential items, helped find shelter, lamps and food for families and provided entertainment for children and health care for people who needed it, especially seniors.

“We met members of organizations that lost their homes and still went out to help others. Faced with a delayed response from the government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), if it had not been for the organizations, the scenario would have been worse than it was,” she said.

According to Samuel González Cardona, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Puerto Rico, non-profit organizations on the island suffered losses in their physical structures as a result of the storm and often faced providing services while lacking the basic services of water, electricity, communications and infrastructure. “Personnel suffered the hurricane’s attacks in many of the communities they serve, impacting the continuity of their operations in children’s homes, community schools, senior centers and hostels.”

González Cardona said that 83 percent of nonprofit organizations affiliated with the United Way suffered structural losses at their offices.

The study “Puerto Rico: A New Reality, Analysis of the Social and Economic Situation of Puerto Rico and the Response of the Third Sector in the Context of the Passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria,” by Technical Studies, Inc., shows the importance of anti-poverty groups during the recovery.

According to the study, the impact of the two hurricanes, but particularly Maria, revealed the already existing state of vulnerability for many of the communities and institutions of Puerto Rico.

A total of 124 community organizations were surveyed on their response to the disaster between September 2017 and January 2018, according to Anitza Cox, director of Analysis and Social Policy for Technical Studies, Inc.

Nearly all the groups – 95 percent – said they dramatically modified the services they offered after the hurricane. More than half distributed essential items, water or food, according to the study. Others also collected debris and distributed mosquito nets and food.

It is estimated that during the first months after Maria, some 200,000 people joined the organizations as volunteers, dedicating 23 hours of work each and impacting more than one million Puerto Ricans.

The nonprofit sector was the first and, in many cases, the only responder to the disaster. “The non-profit entities in Puerto Rico reinvented themselves and became the first line of emergency response,” said González Cardona.

The ongoing challenge for nonprofit organizations

Boys & Girls Club of Puerto Rico (BGCPR) continues to offer complementary educational services to children and young people between six and 18 years of age, after school hours, a vital service on an island where 56 percent of children live in poverty on the island.

But in the immediate aftermath of the storm, the organization was faced with simply trying to survive. “Before Hurricane Maria hit, we prepared our facilities in a preventive way, but when it crossed the island, we were left without communication or electricity, we did not know where and how our employees and participants were. So the first thing we did after the hurricane – thanks to the fact that the majority of our almost 300 employees reported to work – was to contact the rest of the employees . . .  to do a damage assessment of our 13 clubs and achieve communication with our participants,” said Olga Ramos, president of the BGCPR.

Once functional, the clubs immediately joined the recovery effort in ways far different than their normal mission. Four of the clubs were community support centers for food collection and distribution in the towns of Isabela, San Juan, Bayamón and Vieques.

“To distribute food, water, medicines, and other essential items, we made alliances with other organizations, including some physicians and mental health professionals to impact the communities and give them support in the recovery period,” said Ramos.

Both for the BGCPR and for the thousands of nonprofit organizations in Puerto Rico, the response and action process just after Maria’s passing was one of totally re-examining their fundamental purpose. “Hurricane Maria made us rethink everything we did and how we served the community and their most pressing needs,” said Ramos.

The long-distance embrace by the Puerto Rican diaspora brought much-needed funds that made the delivery of essential goods and services possible to access funds during the short and long-term recovery. “After María, our philanthropic network was activated and we began to receive aid from donations made by Puerto Ricans who are in the diaspora. We created alliances with organizations in the United States and other parts of the world to support Puerto Rico and without asking for it, they were already looking for ways to help us,” said Petrovich.

A good example was Casa Pueblo, a community self-management project located in the town of Adjuntas, which established a link with the diaspora to receive solar lamps and refrigerators for the population.

In the same way, community-based corporations, such as the ENLACE Project of Caño Martín Peña, located in San Juan, also received help from Puerto Ricans abroad. “People who were in the diaspora were instrumental in helping us after the hurricane. A command center was created where we distributed and food and mosquito nets. We work without light. We had people without food in the community and people who had nowhere to live,” said Lymaris De Jesús, social development and citizen participation coordinator at ENLACE.

For the Puerto Rican in the diaspora, such as Angelique Sina, co-founder of Friends of Puerto Rico, a nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C. that directs efforts for the economic restoration of the Island, the impulse to help was immediate. Even before the hurricane hit, Sina was beginning to raise money and send supplies.

As they still recover from last year’s storm, organizations are also trying to be better prepared for any future hurricane crisis. González Cardona said his group has reinforced emergency plans and have security supplies, intervention protocols, and financial management that will allow them to continue services after even another cataclysmic storm.

As the focus begins to shift away from immediate recovery, both the Puerto Rico Funders Network and the United Way are redoubling efforts to promote social entrepreneurship through programs of education, sustainable energy development, and support to small businesses. In this way, they seek to promote the development of financial stability across the island.

“One year after Hurricane Maria, we can ensure that our affiliated organizations are very resilient. They take care for the populations they serve and the community in general,” said González Cardona.

Lillian E. Agosto-Maldonado is an independent journalist in Puerto Rico and the United States and teaches at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in San Juan.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity initiative featuring reported journalism as part of our effort to illuminate news and trends in the field to
promote a bipartisan dialogue.

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