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Puerto Rico: Hurricane Maria

While Hurricane Maria churned over Puerto Rico for hours on September 20, 2017, high winds uprooted trees, toppled power lines, and ripped the roofs off countless buildings. Especially in the mountainous countryside, old growth trees were stripped bare and felled; Puerto Ricans say this exposed many things, including the underlying poverty and vulnerabilities. Photo: Oxfam

When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in 2017, it churned over the island for hours. Sustained high winds toppled the power grid, knocked out water supply systems, ripped roofs off countless buildings, stripped trees bare, and devastated the infrastructure.

As the 2018 hurricane season begins on June 1, Puerto Ricans are watching the skies anxiously, as they’re still working to recover. The most vulnerable, who were hit the hardest, are even more threatened by potential hazards. Oxfam is dedicated to working with partners to build back better, with innovative solutions that are more sustainable and resilient.

Help save lives

Together with local partners, Oxfam is helping some of Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable residents meet their urgent needs for clean drinking water, light, and federal recovery assistance, while we continue to advocate in Washington for more resources so the island can rebuild in the face of climate change.

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How we're responding

Updated May 2018

Hurricane Maria dealt a devastating blow to Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. The damage to the island was widespread, and deep. For months, people struggled to survive day to day: power was out, water was unreliable, food was scarce, roads were impassable, and communication was difficult if not impossible.

Today, we see two roads to recovery diverging more every day. In many ways, the hurricane deepened the divides in Puerto Rico—between rich and poor, urban and rural, able-bodied and challenged. While urban centers are coming back to life—as the lights come on and businesses reopen—the reality in many remote rural areas is much more arduous, and dispiriting.

Communities In many places (especially the central highlands) are still enduring long days and nights without power, or reliable access to clean water. Official estimates are that 20,000 customers (roughly 70,000 people) are still without power—but nearly everyone agrees that the actual number is higher.

Those who were already vulnerable were hit the hardest; had the hardest time recovering; and are now facing a new season especially exposed to risk.

“Hurricane Maria pushed many people a few rungs down on the ladder,” notes Martha Thompson, Oxfam Puerto Rico program manager. “If they haven’t been able to muster the resources to climb back up, they’re extremely vulnerable as the hurricane season looms again.”

People are vulnerable in many ways, from their personal circumstances (poverty, age extremes, disability) to their geography (remote highlands, devastated coast). When risk factors are overlaid, the result is a population that 1, never fully recovered from the impact of Maria; and 2, is extremely vulnerable to dangers from a new hurricane season. Thousands of people are a power blip away from losing vital medications or machinery that keep them alive.

“The recovery was so fragile, it wouldn’t take a Category 4 hurricane to damage the grid and wipe out power,” notes Thompson. “In April, one excavator hit a line, and it took the whole grid down.”

With our local partners, we are tackling these problems on several fronts:

  • Together with the Foundation for Puerto Rico, we have been distributing household water filters that can process up to 6,000 gallons of water before the filters need to be changed. Student volunteers from the University of Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Health are joining us, helping with distribution, public health education, and follow-up on filter use.
  • In addition, we are working with local organizations to put together a consortium to repair water systems in 10 to 15 rural, isolated communities in the central mountains that have lost water due to lack of electricity, which is not expected to be restored for months.
  • With the Center for New Democracy, we have been distributing thousands of solar-powered lights across 12 of the island’s municipalities.
  • With Casa Pueblo, we have been installing solar-powered systems for rural grocery stores in three isolated communities. These stores become “oases” in the event of power outages; people come to access refrigeration, cooked food, communications capacity – and camaraderie.
  • Through the Access to Justice Fund Foundation, we are providing legal aid to families, helping them obtain the documents they need to file claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as to appeal rejected claims. The project includes lawyers from seven organizations working in 50 of 78 municipalities.
  • And on Capitol Hill, we are continuing to advocate for more funding for the emergency response and for speeding the aid effort. We have brought delegations of local leaders from Puerto Rico who made their case directly to Members of Congress, Congressional staffers, and high-level FEMA officials.

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Stories & updates

Story

Two roads to recovery in Puerto Rico

Six months after Hurricane Maria shattered Puerto Rico, the road to recovery has split in two. While most people in urban areas are getting back to some semblance of normal, people in other areas—especially in the central highlands and along the southeast coast—are struggling to survive. And losing hope.

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