On September 20th, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico causing widespread destruction and displacing thousands of Puerto Ricans both within the island itself and into the mainland United States. At least 2,975 people lost their lives as a direct result of the storm (a conservative government estimate; see New York Times report from August 2018). Puerto Rico was particularly vulnerable to the storm because of its unique political situation and a long history of environmental exploitation and injustice.
Almost one year later, in August of 2018, we visited two affected communities with a local community organization based in San Juan. Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción, Inc.(MPA)is a 501c3 non-profit organization with a mission to empower a network of young change agents to generate effective and inclusive initiatives for Puerto Rico. MPA actively engages in a number civic engagement efforts. Over the past 10 years, 266 students have participated in their programs, and over 1,100 have participated in their workshops or events. Mainly funded by private donations and foundations such as the Banco Popular Foundation, Fundación Ángel Ramos, Fundación Comunitaria de PR, and Friends of Puerto Rico, and housed in Banco Popular’s Social Innovation and Collaboration Communityco-working space, the organization operates mainly in the metropolitan area but provides services to all of Puerto Rico.
Along with MEP executive Director, Alejandro Silva-Diez, we visited two local communities that MPA has worked with: Villa Calma and Villa del Sol, both located about 15 miles outside of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. These two communities are built close to a series of canals which contributed to widespread destruction when the dam was opened during the storm.
In this photo, you can see the proximity of the canals to residential homes. During the peak of the flooding, the water level reached to top story of the homes you see in these pictures.
Rebuilding and Resilience
A year later, these two communities are still living the aftermath of this historic storm. As we walked through the communities, the destruction is evident – a number of houses are collapsed and some streets remain damaged. However, the damage was not only physical – the emotional and mental distress was significant among many community members. Most effort and focus remain on rebuilding, not allowing the time and space to address the community’s mental health post-Hurricane Maria.
Despite dire circumstances, during and after the storm, community members did not allow for the difficult circumstances to take away their hope and resilience. As one of the community leaders expressed to us, they were determined to work together and “poquito a poquito” (little by little) they were able to clean the entire community.
These communities are vulnerable and this hurricane had the power to completely destroy them, but they did not allow for this to happen. They used their knowledge, strengths, and strong relationships within the community and with neighboring communities and were determined to prove one more time the power and resilience of the Puerto Rican people.Anna Hayward PhD, MSW, is an Associate Professor at Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare and co-lead for the network’s Social Work and Professional Education working group. Yamirelis Otero-Ramos is a second year MSW student at the Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare, specializing in Community, Policy, and Political Social Action. Yamirelis is a resident of Puerto Rico.