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March/April 2019

Ramon Escalera
Aftermath of a Hurricane: Survival Mode in Puerto Rico

In January of this year—sixteen months after the Category 4 Hurricane Maria flattened Puerto Rico—Jorge Pedroza, VVA’s Puerto Rico State Council President, said, “Tourism is gradually back in San Juan, and cruises are gradually coming back, and that’s helping the economy in that part of the island. But we need to have the rest of the island helped, too. San Juan is all right for now, but the rest of the island is still struggling.”

The “rest of the island” refers primarily to other coastal areas and the central, inland region where “thousands and thousands of veterans” live, Pedroza said. “For them, it’s not easy. That’s where it’s the worst. It’s still in really bad shape, and those guys need a lot of help.”

Pedroza and Puerto Rico’s four VVA chapters—59, 398, 483, and 556—have played an instrumental role in trying to help. He also said VVA as a whole has provided critical support and assistance. But with the federal relief efforts taking as much time as they have, finding and reaching many veterans continues to be daunting.

How can that be?

What many people seem to forget is that only two weeks prior to Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Irma, a Cat 5 monster, had passed just north of San Juan, which nonetheless was hit with 100 mph wind gusts. Four people died, two-thirds of the island lost electricity, and more than one-third of the population was deprived of clean water.

Then, as the island was trying to recover, Hurricane Maria scored a direct hit with 155 mph winds, 38 inches of rain, and flood waters up to 15 feet.

Maria knocked out power for all 3.4 million residents of the island. In many places it would be months before power was restored. That alone caused untold suffering.

Ninety-five percent of the island’s cell phone networks was also knocked out, as was 85 percent of above-ground phone and Internet cables.

And those are just the highlights.

A Horrifying Night

Of course, Pedroza knew none of these things the morning after the storm. He’d been awake all night hunkered down with his extended family in one room of his home near San Juan, just trying to assure them everything would be okay.

“The house could withstand the winds because it was cement, but you could hear all around outside things starting to fall,” he said. “I knew it was bad because we had some really tough trees around the house, and they fell. It was a horrifying night.”

At about 9 a.m., he looked outside. Trees, telephone poles, and street-light poles were down. Some of the debris blocked Pedroza from getting out of his house.

“Once I could get out, I got a hatchet and just started cutting trees,” he said. His grandson helped, and then neighbors joined in. “And that’s how it all started. People came out and started to work themselves out of the mess.”

But the psychological impact was palpable. “That first day, a lot of people were shell-shocked,” Pedroza recalled. “They couldn’t believe what had happened all around them.” Add in a sense of near-total isolation: The roads leading out of the neighborhood were either severely damaged or blocked with debris. No one could go anywhere.

“And with no electricity, we could get no news,” Pedroza said. “We had no idea what had happened to the rest of the island. In fact, for the first three or four days, most people just didn’t know what had happened in Puerto Rico.”

Pedroza’s first communication from the U.S. mainland was a text he received several days after the storm from VVA National, asking how he was doing. His cell phone was finally receiving, but he couldn’t respond.

“I had to get out of the house and go somewhere to see if I could find a signal,” he said. “I walked a couple miles, and when I finally got one, I texted back to say I was okay, but that I could not talk about the other chapters because I still did not know. I had no information.”

Two VVA chapters are near the island’s southern coast—Chapter 556 in Ponce and Chapter 483 in Yauco. Another—Chapter 398 in Arecibo—is on the north coast, and the fourth—Chapter 59—is in San Juan. Even after a week, communication within Puerto Rico was spotty at best. All Pedroza could ascertain was that each chapter president was working to locate members and see how they were doing. Total VVA membership is about 400, he said.

While still effectively limited to his San Juan neighborhood, maybe a week after the storm Pedroza received a call from a State Council president in the U.S. “He’d been watching CNN and saw that a veteran somewhere in the middle of the island was running out of supplies and medicine.” The news instantly reminded him that “we have a whole bunch of Vietnam veterans who are diabetic, and there’s still no electricity.”

Pedroza made his way to the VA hospital in San Juan. “I went straight to the hospital director and told him about this veteran in particular, that they had to send something out there to get to him. Because I knew that if he didn’t get his medication, he would die.” The VA sent a rescue team, which found the man and brought him back to the hospital. But Pedroza realized that many other veterans—including VVA members—were probably also in dire situations. Exactly who and where they were, though, was still anyone’s guess.

After a month or so, communications improved slightly. “The chapter in Yauco, the president there had found his members,” Pedroza said. “And the chapters in Arecibo and Ponce, they started doing the same. And once they got that started, it was a little easier to get an account of what was going on.”

Survival Mode

In Arecibo, the entire VA clinic had been obliterated; tents were put up as temporary treatment centers. On the western coast, in Mayaguez, the VA clinic had been out of operation for at least the first ten days, then only partially functioning. In the southern areas, fuel for generators was either scarce or nonexistent, rendering all health care facilities—private as well as VA—almost helpless.

Ramon Escalera“We had a whole bunch of veterans from our chapters throughout the island who were seeking health care anywhere they could get it,” Pedroza said. “But there wasn’t any at first. They’d had to make it on their own during the first two weeks at least.”

While the main VA hospital in San Juan was struggling, at least it was open and functioning. But getting there from the interior regions remained a big problem. “So many roads were still closed, and the rivers in the central part of Puerto Rico took out most of the bridges,” Pedroza said.

Then clean water began to run low in the central part of the island. “People there started using the creeks and rivers,” Pedroza said. “That’s what happened: Everyone basically in survival mode.”

A member of Chapter 483 and his family had lost their entire home—washed away by flood waters. “They were lucky to make it out, but they lost everything,” Pedroza said. Some relief was making its way in, but rebuilding a home was impossible at that point. In fact, Pedroza realized that, given the circumstances, there was really only one way to help people: “Money.”

When other State Council presidents started calling him, asking what they could do, he told them: “I can get money out to the members. They can buy fuel and water and whatever else they need. Fuel especially was expensive.”

Between State Council presidents and VVA National, Pedroza said he received about $25,000, which he and his chapter presidents parceled out to those in need. For the veteran and his family who’d lost their home and everything in it, “I gave him a lot so he could also buy clothes and personal things for himself and family,” Pedroza said.

Today, the story is much the same—finding out who needs help and getting it to them. And help is still needed because federal money has been slow to arrive. Pedroza tries to coordinate help from San Juan when he isn’t trying to make it out to one of the chapters; roads and bridges are still bad. But being in San Juan helps him to be effective: “I make sure I go to all the meetings that the VA hospital has with the director, and anything the chapters bring up, I mention to him immediately so he can send personnel to areas where they’re needed.”

And in true VVA spirit, Pedroza and his chapter presidents are trying to look out for veterans. “About two months ago I was watching the news and saw a story about a Korean War veteran whose house had been all but destroyed. A year later he had still not seen a doctor, he was low on water, and barely had any electricity.” The veteran was living in the central part of the island, where conditions remain bad.

“We got money for him and were able to get him a bed, a refrigerator, everything,” Pedroza continued. “And we built him a temporary house.” But while there, Pedroza learned the veteran was supposed to see his doctor every four months. “And here he was a year later, and nobody had gotten in contact with him. I got in touch with the VA and they sent someone to check on him.”

“But I believe today there are veterans still struggling because of Maria, and the VA has not reached them all yet,” Pedroza said.

Chaos and Disorganization

It’s not just the VA that has had problems. In July 2018 the Federal Emergency Management Agency released an after-action report critical of its response to Hurricane Maria, noting FEMA efforts had been plagued from the start by chaos, disorganization, and logistical problems, according to The New York Times. In fact, when Maria hit, all of FEMA’s relief supplies had been shipped to the U.S. Virgin Islands because of the devastation there two weeks earlier from Hurricane Irma.

In a paper presented to the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting in November 2018, a nurse who had been in Puerto Rico during the recovery said that “the federal government’s anemic post-Maria response led to unnecessary, protracted suffering for many Puerto Ricans, including veterans, who commonly suffer from conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and obstructive sleep apnea.” Furthermore, the storm and its aftermath “reactivated post-traumatic stress disorder in some veterans and intensified other mental health issues.”

According to the VA, Puerto Rico is home to some 45,000 veterans, from World War II to the current wars in the Middle East. The good news is that most VA facilities are back in full operation. But the Arecibo clinic is still closed as veterans continue to receive health care in tents, and the clinic on Vieques island remains shut.

Pedroza knows of one death of a VVA member because of Maria. Wilfredo Montes, Pedroza’s State Council Vice President, went out during the storm to try to secure windows on his home and suffered a heart attack. Pedroza suspects more veterans are among the approximately 3,000 who died as a result of the storm.

Electricity has been restored, but infrastructure remains troubled, at best, in places other than San Juan. “We still have bridges out, more than a year later,” he said.

Ramon Escalera

“There are about 60,000 houses in Puerto Rico that lost roofs and still have temporary roofs on them,” he added. “And there’s people living in them. Every time it rains, they’re getting wet. I’ve got veterans who are still waiting for FEMA money to finish their homes.”

To help them, Pedroza said he and his chapter presidents have teamed up with Puerto Rico’s governor and other service organizations. “We’ve gotten together and been able to help a lot of veterans.”

Pedroza said he checks with his chapters frequently to find out who might still need anything. And that goes for everybody. “Even if you’re not a member, we’re going out to help you. A veteran’s a veteran’s a veteran.”





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