Our third day in Puerto Rico brought us to a part of the island we had not yet ventured to, Humacao. This municipality sits on the Eastern most side of the island, just North of Yabucoa. After a long journey through the hills, we arrived in the barrio of Punta Santiago, a beach town that has found itself in disrepair since the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria. The picturesque ocean vista prefaced by a lawn of idyllic palm trees is marred only by the realization that with such natural beauty comes a predilection for tropical storms that cause destruction unlike anything a landlocked Atlanta-native such as myself can comprehend.
Our goal for the day was to meet with members of the organization P.E.C.E.S. (Programa de Educación Comunal de Entrega y Servicio), a non-profit dedicated to supporting the development of southeastern Puerto Rico. The team sat down with two members of their team, Felix and Alexandra, who elucidated the unique role P.E.C.E.S. played in recovering from the storm. Due to the path of the hurricane, Humacao and Punta Santiago in particular, were some of the first and hardest hit areas of the island. It was here that citizens infamously spelled out, “S.O.S. Necesitamos agua/comida" (“S.O.S. We need water/food”) on the streets before federal aid workers would begin dropping supply packages to them and it was also here that P.E.C.E.S. received these packages and distributed the food to citizens in an organized manner.
In speaking with Felix, a program manager for P.E.C.E.S., we asked, “What do you believe has been the biggest barrier to Punta Santiago’s recovery from the storm?”
To which he instantly responded, “the flooding.”
In an environment where tropical storms and flooding are guaranteed to arrive each year, Punta Santiago weathers an annual beating of its land, buildings and public morale. The resources available allow the town to barely recover the losses and physical damage incurred each year with little money left to even consider investing in preventative measures or substantial renovation. For added effect, Felix points to the wall behind him to show water stains several feet high that have persisted since Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Endowed with at least an initial understanding of the organization’s history and mission, we left Punta Santiago with plan a to return for two full days next week to aid in outreach to the community’s elderly and bedridden population. Additionally, our conversations identified potential for a future collaboration between their organization and other departments at our institution.
An early evening provided an opportunity for the team to get to know San Juan in new ways. As we roamed the dimly-lit cobblestone streets of Old San Juan at the end of the night, it was Felix’s words that my mind found itself perseverating. What struck me most was the earnest positivity he maintained in his efforts to better his community, despite his frustrations with the economic and physical state of Punta Santiago. His concerns stem from the equally immutable forces of nature and government, flood waters and bureaucracy—yet somehow his spirit pushes on. This energy and positivity have been shared by all the Puerto Ricans we have interacted with but it was not until today that I internalized how special and uniquely Puerto Rican these qualities were. The energy is contagious and we are excited and ready for what awaits us tomorrow.
-Amit Pujari, MS4