By Youri Kemp
Caribbean News Now associate editor
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Still struggling with the effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria that blasted the island in September last year, Puerto Rico has received additional disaster relief support from United for Puerto Rico (UFPR) to the tune of $25.8 million dollars, with monies to be directed to 133 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ground assisting with the relief efforts, as well as donating over 2,000 generators to small businesses and completing the distribution of five million pounds of relief additional supplies.
United for Puerto Rico is nonprofit NGO created after the Office of the First Lady of Puerto Rico called for members of the private sector to join in the relief effort after Hurricane Irma struck Puerto Rico on September 6. After the catastrophic impact of Maria, on September 20, the organization formalized and strengthened its structure as an entity separate from the government overseen by a board of nine directors from the private sector with one ex-officio government representative, the secretary of the Puerto Rico Treasury, who has no vote.
While organising disaster relief for Puerto Rico being an important issue, UFPR first focused on providing immediate post-hurricane relief and now those efforts have transitioned to recovery.
UFPR efforts have supported five critical areas in disaster relief and recovery: 16.15 percent for food and water; 17.66 percent for shelter, 26.86 percent for health, 23.84 percent for social wellbeing and 15.49 percent for economic development. These initiatives have concentrated in support of the most vulnerable populations, such the elderly, single mother households and children among others.
“We are extremely satisfied and proud of the efforts achieved by leveraging the capabilities and resources of NGOs with potential to impact approximately one million individuals with the most pressing needs,” said Aurelio Alemán, chairman of the UFPR board.
“These milestones have been made possible thanks to the generosity of foundations, other organizations, corporations and more than 120,000 individuals who donated $39.2 million to United for Puerto Rico,” Alemán added.
Other agencies, governmental and otherwise, have also stepped up with billions of dollars of aid and support for Puerto Rico over the past several months after the hurricane.
Combining the work laid in initial efforts with other agencies and working towards long-term support, in the upcoming days, UFPR will host a health forum to discuss best practices to serve the health needs of the most remote communities during disasters.
One of the most important factors support personnel on the ground are trying to measure with respect to the long term effects of the hurricanes is that the death toll is still unknown.
The official death toll from the Puerto Rican administrative authorities of people drowned in floods, killed by landslides, caught in collapsed houses, or who perished from environmental or health problems in the immediate aftermath of the storm seven months ago was recorded at 64. However, a report by the New York Times of estimated daily mortality rates found that the number could be well over 1,000.
Goods that support the control infectious and communicable diseases, water cleanliness, proper sanitation services in addition to storage facilities for food and medicines storage are still desperately needed on the island.
To this extent, in strengthening support systems for small businesses, one of the key groups identified as part of the recovery, UFPR also supplied power generators when it became apparent that power restoration would take months in certain areas and close to a year in the central and southeastern part of Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra.
More than 2,000 small businesses benefitted from this program in 24 municipalities facing the biggest challenges in power restoration. This initiative not only provided a survival mechanism for these small businesses, but also offered a support system to these communities by giving a certain level of normality during the crisis.
Earlier in April, an island wide blackout occurred, threatening a scheduled baseball game between the Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins of the American Major League Baseball Association.
Emergency power and backup generators had to be brought in order for the game to take place, and many reports noted that the only lights that could be seen on the island for miles were from the stadium where the game was held.
Despite the challenges and disappointments and in some instances, opportunities, Alemán still continues to work and provide support where he and UFPR can.
“We are proud of the efforts achieved during the past seven months. Through the NGOs, we are helping to rebuild stronger communities. At UFPR, we are humbled by the trust granted and extremely grateful for the contributions from our donors. We are committed to honor them by ensuring the adequate distribution of all donations to continue to help the people of Puerto Rico recover,” he said.
In addition to these initiatives, UFPR has, as part of its work plan, also participated in forums with other organizations to explore lessons learned from Hurricane Maria that can help the community be better prepared in the future. As part of these efforts the executive director visited New Orleans in the company of Puerto Rico leaders from across various sectors, with the NGO, Friends of New Orleans, in a trip sponsored by the Skip Battle Foundation, organized by ConPRmetidos, a local NGO.