The word “survivor” is one we use often in writing about humanitarian work. As I reflect on this trip, it’s a word that catches in my throat. And it should—it is heavy with stories of lost family members and homes blown away. It is a word bursting at its seams with resilience. It is not just a title that points to a tragedy in the past; it is one that is worn like a crown every single day. It is a word that should give us pause.
During my trip, I met survivor after survivor who smiled through their pain. I watched tears flow from the tired eyes of a man (below) who had no food in his house. “I can eat now,” he told us. He invited us into his home, where we saw only a few cases of water stacked up against a wall. I spoke with families who hadn’t had power in 9 months—a reality that thousands still face almost a year after the hurricane hit. Puerto Rico has an aging population, and for many, tasks like traversing damaged roadways to get food have become all but impossible.
IRUSA donors paid for thousands of food boxes to reach the people in need across Puerto Rico’s most damaged areas. The food boxes contained staple items common in Puerto Rican diets (below). “We are still in the response phase of this disaster,” Disaster Response Manager Hani Hamwi told me. The response phase entails providing basic necessities like food and water. The recovery phase for Puerto Rico has yet to begin, though the new hurricane season commenced on June 1.
We partnered with a local chapter of Lions Club International who knew the community needs well. They were all volunteers, and they were also survivors of Hurricane Maria. As we trekked through rural areas of Puerto Rico distributing food, they told me how much it was helping and how great the need was. They were able to articulate the situation with ease, until I asked them how they were personally affected. Their faces would change and the words would come choked through tears. I soon realized that the volunteers who were working with us turned to service as a way to deal with their own trauma from the hurricane.
Our guide during the trip was a woman named Mariam. From her vibrancy and energy, you would never know that she lost her daughter just a month after Maria. She was pregnant and died in the hospital during childbirth. It was one of many fatalities that happened post-Maria as a result of a health care system completely crippled by the storm. Many hospitals remained without power for months or operated off of generators too weak to power even basic medical equipment. A report published in May by Harvard researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that “one third of the deaths were attributed to delayed or interrupted heath care.” Mariam’s daughter was one of them.
We also met Maria (above), a volunteer with Lion’s Club whose lively personality was contagious. “I want to change my name,” she told us. We assured her that she was the true embodiment of the name. During the course of the distributions, she revealed that she had been diagnosed with cancer. “They want me to go to the hospital,” she said, “but what will the hospital do for me without power?” She said she would rather be with us, helping people. She said that it was the only thing that made her feel happy.
The situation in Puerto Rico remains dire, though it has all but left the world’s attention. Again and again, the community thanked us for not forgetting about them when others did. I was struck by a lot of what I saw on this trip. I was surprised to see that the evidence of destruction was still everywhere, whether from Hurricane Maria or from years of economic hardship. I counted blue tarps draped over homes as makeshift roofs and listened to families count their losses as the humming of shared generators filled the air. But what was most moving was to see that where roofs were collapsed, spirits were not. Where food was scarce, gratitude was abundant. And where ever people were hurting, I found that service healed.