Our first days in Puerto Rico: An on-the-ground report

United States

October 3, 2017

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  • Our emergency response team met Julio on Oct. 2, 2017, as he removed mud and debris from his home in Campanilla. ALL PHOTOS: Christy Delafield/Mercy Corps

Members of our emergency response team are now on the ground in Puerto Rico.

The team is assessing the situation to see how we can best support efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance and start rebuilding the communities ravaged by Hurricane Maria. In the immediate term, we anticipate working with local organizations to provide emergency cash so people can buy what they need most.

“Nearly everywhere you look there is evidence of the storm's passing. Trees are down, there's debris on the sides of the roads, power lines and light posts down and long lines at gas stations,” says Christy Delafield, senior global communications officer. “None of the traffic lights were working when I arrived.”

Read our full Puerto Rico statement ▸

We are working as quickly as we can to lay the foundation for recovery with local organizations, focusing particularly on vulnerable and underserved populations. We believe that these organizations know their community needs best. Everywhere we work, we work with local organizations that do great work and need greater resources.

The street in front of Julio’s house. The flooding left a layer of mud in many houses that people have been working for days to remove, especially without access to water.

Despite the challenges, people are coming together to help their neighbors. “There is a great camaraderie and positive attitude among the people I’m meeting,” says Delafield. “People are out helping each other clear debris in their neighborhoods.”

In Campanilla, about 15 miles west of San Juan, our team met Julio, whose house is still full of mud and water — a situation that many residents are facing. He has no power or water and is working to clear out debris. 45 percent of Puerto Rico's 3.4 million residents remain without access to clean water and nearly 95 percent are still without power. As of Oct. 2, 88 percent of cell sites are still out of service.

Our team encountered several dozen people parked alongside of the road — they had all driven to find a place where there was a functioning cell tower.

The team also saw other signs of the challenges to come.

“We passed fields of plantains that were leveled, which provided just the beginning of an idea of the damage to food production on the island,” says Delafield. Based on our experience and understanding of the needs on the ground, people will need access to cash and other essentials.

City employees clearing debris in San Juan.

But people are also dedicated to rebuilding.

“The people I’ve met are anxious to get going and get the job done,” says Javier Alvarez, director of strategic response and global emergencies. “They are committed to coming out of this stronger than before.”

It is rare for us to respond to disasters in the U.S., though in moments of extreme disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey, we do respond domestically. The scale of Puerto Rico’s destruction is devastating, and it has become clear to us that additional help is needed.

“The people of Puerto Rico are resilient,” says Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps. “As a global organization with strong American roots, we have to help our fellow citizens now.”

Puerto Ricans are inspiring us with their commitment to building back better than before the storm. We are moved to bring our global experience, expertise and contacts to the recovery and rebuilding effort.

Please help us continue and expand our lifesaving work. Give now to our Humanitarian Response Fund to help families in crisis around the world survive and build back stronger.