Home » Blog » The 3 Rs for Puerto Rico: Rescue, Relief and Rebuild - Guest Commentary by Cristina Pacione-Zayas, PhD

The 3 Rs for Puerto Rico: Rescue, Relief and Rebuild - Guest Commentary by Cristina Pacione-Zayas, PhD

By Cristina Pacione-Zayas, PhD.

Director of Policy at the Erikson Institute

It’s nearly seven months since the infamous Category 4 Hurricane Maria delivered a devastating blow to the topography and already economically fragile “Isla del Encanto,” Puerto Rico.  The island of over three million U.S. citizens has undergone the longest period of recovery in the history of the Red Cross as confirmed by a representative during a humanitarian visit I joined in March with a delegation from Chicago including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez. The trip delivered over 5,000 in medical supplies and solar panels in addition to $43,000 in micro-grants for specific rebuilding initiatives in hard-hit towns.

A 100-year-old tree uprooted by Hurricane Maria. Current conditions promote a growing public health crisis and can be characterized as a crime against humanity with over 150,000 homes remaining without power, intermittent water service under boil alert, over 1,000 lives lost, spiked suicides rates, and hundreds of thousands of residents recently relocating stateside.   

When the media omitted Puerto Rico in its reporting on the effects of Hurricane Irma just weeks before Maria, The Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago sounded the alarm by calling a press conference about the legacy of erasing the Puerto Rican experience within public discourse. Immediately following we formed an Emergency Task Force to develop strategies for providing relief, launching a fundraising campaign, and determining criteria for sending aid to our island.

The fundraising campaign launched on Friday, September 22 at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, a local non-profit 501c3 serving as our fiscal agent, and raised nearly $70,000 during a benefit with over 400 supporters that evening. Within 48 hours our members assessed the immediate needs on the island, purchased shipping-ready pallets of emergency supplies, secured transportation courtesy of Custom Trucking Company, and loaded the first cargo plane underwritten by United Airlines.  Supplies arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Monday, September 25 and were received by Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz for distribution across the island.  This all happened in less than five days after Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island! The airplane returned with 300 evacuees from Puerto Rico multiplying the impact of our efforts.

From that moment, our signature strategy was crystallized. We resolved to spend our energy fundraising to purchase pallets directly from Puerto Rican distributors and work closely with Puerto Rican officials and non-profit organizations to distribute supplies and issue micro-grants.  Still in full swing, our campaign has evolved into the initiative, 3R’s for Puerto Rico: Rescue, Relief and Rebuild.

To date, our efforts have delivered $300,000 in emergency supplies and micro-grants directly to the 30 municipalities shaded on the map below.  The Chicago Community Trust recently recognized the effectiveness of our strategy and awarded $100,000 to continue efforts with micro-grant distribution, supporting resettlement in Chicago, and advocating for policy solutions.

Since September, our members have made numerous visits to deliver aid directly to those in need. As a member of the Chicago Delegation for the March visit, I share three indelible observations for analyzing the situation and what remains to be done:

  1. Hurricanes Irma and Maria are not the sole culprits of Puerto Rico’s devastation.  The vestiges of colonialism are to blame with the United States government exploiting the island’s resources and ability to determine its own destiny at every juncture.  Prior to the storm, the island had been in the midst of a manufactured fiscal crisis resulting in austerity measures that further weakened the public service sector, infrastructure, and encouraged “brain drain” from professionals in all industries.
  2. Mayors are the first responders and on the frontlines without broader support from the central and federal governments. Our visits to Loiza, Naranjito, and Comerio provided insight into the extent mayors have led recovery efforts in collaboration with community-based organizations. Community brigades are rebuilding roofs in Loiza, homes in Comerio that withstood Maria are being retrofitted with storm windows and doors, and a new Walgreens replaced a free-standing mobile pharmacy for the first time since the storm in Naranjito. Even with already slashed budgets, each municipal leader shared tales of sleepless nights serving as first-responders and feeling the anxiety of preparing for another storm season without having returned to a state of stability. 
  3. Grassroots initiatives throughout the diaspora and local efforts on the island, NOT the federal government, have literally saved lives in Puerto Rico. During our visit, San Juan Mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, praised Chicago as a first responder and continued supporter.  She keeps the video on her personal cell phone showing truckloads of emergency supplies making their way to the distribution center just days after the storm when the federal government justified delayed responses by citing the island’s distance and bureaucratic processes.

Countless donations in all amounts, from all corners of the Chicago and beyond, combined with the collective effort and determination of a tight group of community leaders continue to serve as a model for what the federal government failed to deliver. Our work is not over, and this trip confirmed that notion.  In fact, we are less than two months away from the next hurricane season.  The rebuilding of Puerto Rico by and for Puerto Ricans will take decades and the impact felt for generations.

We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to reimagine a more sustainable, sovereign, and self-actualized Puerto Rico.  As I reflect on the major lesson of this work, I share the guidance we learned from veterans in these efforts: Lives depend on you to work strategically, immediately, and collaboratively—stay focused. Join the campaign here: www.PuertoRicanChicago.org.


Posted In: Families & Communities