To Build Resilience, Puerto Rico Communities Embrace Grassroots Partnerships

Jul 6, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nearly two years after Hurricane Maria, many residents of Puerto Rico are learning an important lesson - they cannot wait for the government to help them. Instead, they are partnering with foundations and charities to become more resilient and self-reliant in future disasters. From Caguas, Puerto Rico, NPR's Greg Allen has this report.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Gray skies and a light drizzle blanket Las Carolinas, a working-class, hilly neighborhood in Caguas, about 20 miles from the capital, San Juan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: Aroma and chatter draw you inside a school kitchen where six cheerful volunteers are cooking and serving meals to go. They'll be delivered around the neighborhood to disabled and elderly residents.

MARISELI O'NEILL FONTANA: (Through interpreter) This has green peppers, zucchini, potatoes, beans. And we also have white rice and chicken.

ALLEN: Nineteen-year-old Mariseli O'Neill Fontana is helping get lunch ready. After the storm, with no power, damaged homes and supplies running low, O'Neill says people needed help. They still do.

O'NEILL: (Through interpreter) Many of those people lost their home. They couldn't afford to eat hot meals or even just buy food.

ALLEN: The group, called CAM, or Center of Mutual Support, is staffed by volunteers who live in the neighborhood. They take turns cooking three days a week. After Maria, they opened the kitchen in an abandoned elementary school. Now one of the group's board members, Miguel Angel Rosario, says they're negotiating with the government to get the deed to the property.

MIGUEL ANGEL ROSARIO: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: He says, "our plan is to power it on solar. We want to install solar panels here, especially in the kitchen, so we can continue to provide services to the community." The group in Las Carolinas has had help - funding from foundations and charities, plus guidance from Pablo Mendez, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Puerto Rico. Mendez says what's going on here in Las Carolinas is happening in other towns and neighborhoods around the island.

PABLO MENDEZ-LAZARIO: Some communities are rising up and not waiting for the support from the government, and they have more confidence on making their own decision.

ALLEN: Since the storm, Mendez has been working with 11 communities in Puerto Rico to help them identify their needs and take steps to become more self-sufficient and resilient. These are communities, he says, that have long felt ignored by government, underserved areas that were hurting before the hurricane.

MENDEZ: The level of poverty and a lot of people that are living below poverty level, people that are unemployment, that they don't have health insurance. But the hurricane damage was unveiled some of the reality of how Puerto Ricans are leaving.

ALLEN: About 60 miles west of Las Carolinas in Puerto Rico's central highlands, something similar is going on in a rural community. In the town of Mameyes, with funding from outside groups, including Heart to Heart International and Americares, residents have opened a health clinic. Noelia Rivera is a nurse there.

NOELIA RIVERA: (Through interpreter) Here we have medicine for diabetes, high blood pressure, for seasonal colds, thyroid.

ALLEN: Many here are elderly, with chronic medical conditions. The clinic runs on solar power. If there's another hurricane, it will still have electricity and be able to treat patients.

RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: This was an abandoned agricultural building, a co-op. Farmers brought in coffee and plantain crops to sell. The community restored the building. Now they have a clinic with free services and medicine. And it also provides jobs.

RIVERA: (Through interpreter) I used to work in Vega Baja, more than an hour's drive each way, before this clinic opened. I can now work near my home, and I never thought that would ever be possible.

ALLEN: If there's anything positive that comes from Hurricane Maria, it may be this - that some local communities have become empowered and are now building resiliency and sustainability on their own.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Caguas, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.