The devastation following Hurricane Maria is still impacting a large portion of the Puerto Rican population and relief efforts have been stagnant. The current presidential administration has made a clear distinction between victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida and the victims of Hurricane Maria. The government’s lack of response to Puerto Rico’s situation can be traced to the island’s colonial relationship with the United States. Many Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are in fact American citizens, let alone realize that Puerto Rico has no real representation within the government. This colonial relationship has always placed Puerto Rico on the peripheries of the American nation, which has been highlighted with the response to Hurricane Maria.
Currently, many residents of the island are without power, and most people are expecting that they won’t have electricity until next year. The government claims that power will be returned to most of the Island by December, but many residents are skeptical. That skepticism has translated into a major outward migration of the population to the U.S. Outmigration to the U.S. has become a major issue on the island, as nearly 67,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida in the past month.
The few efforts the government has implemented to help Puerto Rico recover have been focused on relief, such as providing bottles of water and other supplies needed. However, local organizations on the ground are moving beyond relief to address rebuilding Puerto Rico’s infrastructure in order to prevent another catastrophic situation from occurring with the next hurricane.
One of the main organizations leading the shift towards rebuilding is Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción (MPA), a group focused on training young people to be agents of change that intertwine their projects with the growth of Puerto Rico. I spoke with the Director, Alejandro Silva Díaz, about the needs on the ground to help Puerto Rico recover and rebuild.
He began by telling me that the organization focuses on three types of jobs. The first job is cleaning up and removing debris from the storm. The second job is taking a community census of each community’s needs with Connect Relief, a local mobile phone application leading the data collection initiative in the island. Finally, the third job the organization is focused on is gathering names of people who are still missing, entering this data on the Maria Tech Brigade platform created by an entity called Startups of PR.
While relief efforts, such as food and supplies distribution, are still important, many other organizations working on that end, and Silva tries to avoid that overlap. MPA is really focusing on engaging citizens, bridging information and rebuilding a sustainable infrastructure for Puerto Rico. For instance, instead of providing communities with bottled water, the organization is planning to bring in engineers to teach communities to build their own water filters and phone chargers.
The organization makes a strong effort to challenge the savior complex by tapping local community organizations and leaders to help with rebuilding efforts. By working directly with community members, MPA hopes to create community empowerment through participation in rebuilding efforts, as local communities know what they need best and they will become more resilient through participating.
Silva argues that it is important to include local communities in the rebuilding efforts, and MPA is open to working with any organizations looking to help. They are members of Social Innovation and Collaboration Community (CCIS in spanish) community, one of the most important disaster relief effort hubs in Puerto Rico, which has allowed them to collaborate with other community based entities such as Taller Salud, Centro Nueva Mujer in Cayey, Proyecto Enlace del Caño Martín Peña, Caras con Causa, Fundación Comunitaria de PR, Vitrina Solidaria, and the Instituto Nueva Escuela.
Ultimately, MPA’s partnership with Connect Relief, helps centralize information about where organizations are going in order to prevent overlap and under serving certain communities, such as many communities in the center of the Island. This is where other movements, such as “Por Los Nuestros” have become vital to share information. The rebuilding efforts are so important to ending situations of dependency in preparation for future natural disasters.
For those interested in collaborating with or donating to Mentes Puertorriqueñas, please go to this site: http://www.mentespuertorriquenas.org/enaccion. Please click under the DONA! Link. At this point in the rebuilding effort, cash is needed more than supplies. If you are interested donating to another organization, please make sure they involved with the local community.