Editor's note: This article was originally published January 19, 2018; it was updated June 6, 2018 to reflect the latest information.
On the morning of Wednesday, September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, devastating the island and plunging all of its 3.4 million residents into a desperate humanitarian crisis.
Puerto Rico, officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is an island territory of the United States, located in the northeast Caribbean Sea. It’s known for its white sand beaches, the historic city of Old San Juan, and El Yunque National Forest.
The archipelago had already been facing a recession for over a decade before Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit. Almost half of residents lived below the poverty line — by far the highest poverty rate of any U.S. state or territory — and the unemployment rate is nearly three times the national level.
The damaging effects of the hurricane — the worst storm to strike the island in over 80 years — will haunt residents for many years to come. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, have left home and arrived in the continental U.S. since the storm. Many others stayed to help Puerto Rico recover.
Now eight months after the storm, they still need a lot of support with essentials and with the hard, long-term work of recovery. And hurricane season has returned. According to preliminary forecasts, this year's season could be “above average” — a foreboding warning for Puerto Ricans still rebuilding from the last storm, as thousands remain without power and many remain without access to clean water.
Thanks to generous support from a variety of corporate partners including Walmart, the Miami Foundation and Google.org, Mercy Corps is continuing to support Puerto Rico relief and recovery efforts in the ongoing aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Read on for more about how Puerto Rico has been affected by the storms, what Mercy Corps and partners are doing, and how you can help.
What happened when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico?
Maria first made landfall near the southeastern town of Yabucoa. The powerful Category 4 storm plowed across the island with sustained winds of 155 mph, uprooting trees, downing weather stations and cell towers, and ripping wooden and tin roofs off homes. Electricity was cut off to 100 percent of the island, and access to clean water and food became limited for most.
Heavy rains and flash floods brought on by the storm exacerbated widespread devastation, turning streets into rivers full of debris. In some areas, floodwaters were waist-high — more than 30 inches deep — and often sewage-ridden. Less than one percent of homeowners had flood insurance.
Some Puerto Ricans were forced to cross swollen rivers after bridges collapsed to reach businesses where they could buy water and gas.
Hurricane Maria is the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in over 80 years, and arrived only two weeks after Hurricane Irma passed just north of the island and left 1 million people without power. The effect on Puerto Rican families — and the island’s infrastructure — will take many years to heal.
Despite the challenges, people are coming together to help their neighbors in any way they can — whether by clearing debris or even passing on food aid to those who need it more. People are committed to building back better than before the storm.
What’s been the effect of the hurricane?
The scale of Maria’s destruction has been devastating, causing as much as $94 billion in damage, and experts say the economy will shrink by as much as eight percent this year as a result of the storm — a crippling toll for an island that was already billions of dollars in debt.
But the effects of the storm will undoubtedly be felt most by the people themselves. While the reported death toll was 64 people, recent research from Harvard suggests the storm resulted in more than 4,600 fatalities — over 70 times the official estimate. The storm left thousands of families without homes and destroyed some communities entirely.
For months, most families and businesses remained without power, cell phone service was limited, and clean water, food, medicine and fuel were all in very short supply. Less than half of residents had their power restored two months after the storm had passed. For many, it will take years to fully recover.
What are living conditions like now?
Eight months have passed since Hurricane Maria made landfall, and clear evidence of the storm remains. Lack of electricity and clean drinking water remain central challenges to the Caribbean island as it struggles to return to a semblance of normal life.
Thousands of Puerto Ricans are still living in the dark. Most of them live Yabucoa, the first town to be struck by the storm. The blackout is the largest blackout in U.S. history.
Some residents still don’t have access to clean water. Even where water service has been restored, many communities still have a “boil water” advisory in place. Other areas are still purchasing bottled water to get the clean water they need.
As of February, thousands of families were still displaced, living in shelters, with friends or relatives, or at hotels with assistance from FEMA.
While most people have regained access to basic essentials at this point, the road to recovery is long, and many residents still need help.
Despite the need, Puerto Rico has struggled to secure adequate relief funds from the U.S. government. The challenge to support funds from the government is not a new phenomenon. Puerto Rico's territorial status gives way to unequal treatment under key federal programs such as Medicaid, compared to U.S. states. For example, the Census Bureau reported that Oregon, although having a population size similar to Puerto Rico, received over $10 billion more from the government than Puerto Rico received for the same year.
Who's been most affected by the destruction?
The storm disproportionately affected Puerto Rico’s poorest residents, who have fewer resources on hand to help them recover and rebuild. Many of these people live in more rural communities and the hard-to-reach areas of the mountains and can expect to be the last to regain access to water or see their electricity restored.
Mercy Corps is focused on providing assistance to these vulnerable and underserved populations, who are most likely to be missed in broader relief efforts. This includes the elderly — many of whom depend on welfare or social security — along with people with disabilities and those living in remote rural areas, like the mountain towns of Las Marias and Maricao.
Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to the psychological impacts of disaster, and many depend on the resources and support they find at school to help them overcome trauma-induced stress. Hurricanes Irma and Maria disrupted the lives of some 350,000 public school students. It took nearly five weeks before the first public schools began to reopen after the storm, though most were still operating without power.
Today, the majority of Puerto Rico’s public schools are open again. Some schools have been converted into community centers and shelters, forcing students to relocate and find alternate routes to resume their studies. More than 10 percent of Puerto Rico’s students have left the island since Maria hit. And the newest fiscal plan includes a measure to permanently close nearly 300 schools — roughly a quarter of all of the island's public schools.
Those who remain will continue dealing with the consequences of a sustained break in their educations, along with the stress of recovering from a natural disaster.
How is Mercy Corps helping?
While most of our work focuses on international responses, we do respond to domestic disasters in moments of extreme crisis. Given the monumental scale of destruction and the need for additional help, Mercy Corps has been working hard to support relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, we partnered with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, to deliver more than 25,000 meals to hard-hit communities.
Together with local organizations, we distributed nearly $300,000 in emergency cash so people can buy what they need most — items like water, food and other essential supplies. Cash is a fast and flexible way to help people after crisis and supports local markets as they recover from the effects of Hurricane Maria.
We also distributed 5,000 solar lanterns and 2,500 water filters to thousands of families now facing an uncertain future. Access to solar lights and water filters, combined with training in their proper use, means that families are better prepared for future storms. Experts predict that we could see another active hurricane season in the Caribbean again this year, starting as early as June 1.
While addressing immediate needs, we have also been working with local communities to understand where there are opportunities to rebuild stronger. Local community centers have become important gathering points where people who have lost their homes seek shelter, receive aid, and participate in community events. Today, we are working to transform these centers into resilience hubs to help rebuild the island's energy and water supply.
Thanks to funding from Walmart and The Miami Foundation, we are creating at least 15 resilience hubs at existing community centers to lay the foundation for Puerto Rico’s recovery. Hubs will help provide energy and water where it’s needed most, offer support to smallholder farmers who lost their livelihoods to the storm, and help families become more resilient and better prepared to face future storms.
"This year's hurricane season will be here before we know it," said Karla Peña, Emergency Program Manager for Mercy Corps in Puerto Rico. "We don't have time to do one thing at a time. The resilience hubs will help people today, while connecting them to the resources they need in case of future disasters."
How you can help
The situation on the island is slowly improving, but more help is still needed to mitigate Hurricane Maria’s effect on Puerto Rico. As we see elsewhere around the world, it will take a concerted effort by multiple organizations and the government to help Puerto Rico recover. Here’s how you can help:
Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more support to Puerto Rican families and families recovering from disaster around the world.
- Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page to spread the word about the millions who need us.
- Send a message of support. Let Puerto Ricans know that you haven't forgotten about them.
- Start a campaign. You can turn knowledge into action by setting up a personal fundraising page and asking your friends and family to contribute to our efforts to help families survive, recover and rebuild.