YABUCOA, Puerto Rico – It is a humanitarian crisis like we’ve never seen before – three months after Hurricane Maria tore through, millions in Puerto Rico are still without power and basic necessities.
It’s causing the death toll to continue to rise.
But a group of medical professionals from Jacksonville and St. Augustine has stepped in, making an emergency trip to save lives.
I traveled to Puerto Rico to cover the Category 5 storm’s impact days after it hit, and earlier this month, I returned to check on the progress.
The first time, we had to fly in with the military, on the Georgia Air Guard’s C-130. The next time, photographer Chris O’Rourke and I were able to fly commercial, as the international airport in San Juan has restarted operations.
But hours away from the hustle and bustle of the capital, through the winding and crumbling mountain roads, we found a place few people hear about - a place where more than 90 days later, residents are still struggling to survive.
“People are still dying,” explained 65-year-old Alex Diaz. “People are dying. It’s incredible.”
In Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, residents still don’t have power. Many don’t have running water and and a roof over their heads.
Hurricane Maria made landfall here in the southeastern part of the island on Sept. 20, her eye wall passing through with winds of more than 200 miles per hour.
We ventured to this part of the U.S. territory because we were told people here were still struggling. They didn’t have the resources of the big cities. Residents felt neglected, some even calling themselves “forgotten.”
“She wants you guys to know, to see how she lives now after the hurricane,” said a Yabucoa resident, as another woman tried to flag down our car.
An obviously exhausted 74-year-old Irma Torres showed us what’s left of her home in a community called El Negro, as it teetered on the side of the ocean.
Torres was in a nightgown - dirty, tired and at wit’s end. She had no money to pay for the repairs. Her husband, who is blind, is also sick, and she said the government and FEMA hasn’t helped her.
She broke down in tears.
“I feel depressed,” she said in Spanish.
Torres told us her neighbors, family and friends are also in a dire situation. We went from one mangled home to another.
The homes had no roofs or electricity and suffered water damage. The residents' furniture, including beds, were ruined.
An old man stared hopelessly at the horizon.
We also met a young man whose foot was infected. His mother said without clean water and a doctor, it’s getting worse.
People here are living off whatever they can get their hands on, going fishing for food or eating MREs (meals ready to eat) that the National Guard handed out in town. It’s hardly gourmet, but enough to keep them going.
We rode around to see the worst devastation firsthand with a mailman from Yabucoa. JC told me it’s a tough time. And this lifelong Puerto Rican has never been through an experience quite like it.
“You’ve never felt winds like that before?” I asked.
“Hell no,” said JC. “That was like 200 something miles per hour.”
JC and other city workers showed us the areas most in need, leading us up to the mountains where, because of mudslides and blocked roads, people were cut off for weeks.
Many of these homes in a community called El Pico were built from wood instead of brick or concrete block. People just didn’t have the money to prepare and now they can’t afford to rebuild.
Houses here were flattened. We met a woman named Ramona. She was cooking lunch on a makeshift stove, even though her father’s home didn’t have a roof.
Her house was next door. That was completely gone, except a small portion of wall and a free-standing toilet.
“I did not sleep last night,” she told us. The mosquitoes were bad and the heat made it hard to get any rest. She was anxious, not knowing when or if things would ever get back to normal.
But with each new day, there’s new hope.
A team of doctors, nurses and pharmacists from Northeast Florida set up a makeshift medical clinic in the communities of Humacao and Yabucoa. By 8 a.m. each morning, a line had already formed.
This group traveled from the First Coast and other parts of the country to this rural area on their own dime to make a difference.
“I wanted to help,” said pharmacist Andrea Skinner. “I don’t want to just throw money at it. I want to get in, get my hands dirty and be part of it.”
They set up the free medical clinic at two public parks.
Skinner described some of the medications they brought in suitcases, including diabetic medications, analgesics, blood pressure medicine, antibiotics, vaccines and vitamins.
The nonprofit spent around $15,000 to buy the medications from distributors and got special permission to bring them to Puerto Rico.
“After Maria, we decided we have to go,” said Santiago Rosado, MD. He took time off from his work at GI Associates St. Augustine to organize the trip.
Rosado, who was born in Puerto Rico, is medical director for the Friends of the Missions group, a Catholic-based nonprofit from St. Augustine.
He said many of the 20 volunteers on the trip are either from Puerto Rico or have ties to the territory. Some just felt compelled to help people in need.
“I have been able to get in touch with my people again,” Rosado said.
Without cellphones and internet, the group used a local radio station, Victoria 840, to spread the word about the free medical care.
The message spread quickly, as Puerto Ricans came from far and wide to get healthy.
I asked Ray Pumarjo, MD, if it’s tough to get adequate medical care in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. He said it’s incredibly tough.
Pumarejo, a pulmonologist from St. Vincent's HealthCare in Jacksonville, was also born on the island.
“I’m seeing a lot of respiratory ailments,” he said, after treating dozens of patients.
“A lot of overuse injuries. Folks that are carrying buckets of water all over the place. They get shoulder injuries. Joint injuries like the knees.”
Remember Irma Torres? We told her about the medical clinic and she showed up the next day with her family and neighbors.
“I am very thankful,” she said in Spanish, holding back tears.
“It’s not easy because I have been very worried.”
“You cannot imagine how emotional I am inside right now,” Diaz told us.
The 65-year-old Diaz, who competed in the Olympics for Puerto Rico and earned a PhD in the U.S., now lives alone in the mountains -- no electricity, water or phone service and no car. He’s disabled and on a limited income.
“For 82 days, I have been sleeping sitting up,” he told me. “Because I lost my mattress. I lost it. I lost my couch.”
It caused his legs to swell and his blood pressure to rise. His visit to the clinic was his first time out of the house and he had to pay his landlord $20 to drive him here.
“I don’t have any income. OK? I cannot pay for the medicines. And to have these people here, giving their time and their love, because they do it to help us. They have saved so many lives.”
With shots in his legs and two months of free medication, he’s now on the track to getting healthy again -- the biggest improvement was in his morale. He knew someone cared about him.
“There are these people that are going through what is a horrendous ordeal and they are doing it with a smile on their face,” said Mary McCormick, RN. The nurse from Jacksonville’s Transportation Occupational Medicine Consultants also helped organize the trip.
The road to recovery is a long one and these Florida volunteers know they can’t solve all the problems.
“There is no way this is going to get fixed rapidly,” McCormick said,
But if they can put a smile on someone’s face and make somebody’s life better, this is a trip well worth their time.
Diaz said their impact was beyond words.
“Thank you, thank you for all the help so far,” he told the medical team.
“You have done so much for us.”
The crisis continues. On the last day of our five-day trip, Yabucoa’s mayor and a congresswoman from New York who was visiting the area announced that the city’s only hospital will have to shut down because of issues with power and black mold.
“Doctors are performing surgeries and all the sudden the power goes off,” said Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez who represents the 7th Congressional District in New York.
“This is about life and death issues.”
We will have more on the rebuilding progress and problems in Puerto Rico later this week.
If you’d like to make a donation to the nonprofit group that sent the doctors, nurses and pharmacists that visited the hardest hit areas, you can make a tax-deductible donation to Friends of the Missions.
Donations can be mailed to:
Friends of the Missions
39 Dolphin Drive
St Augustine FL 32080
You can also contact them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/friendsofthemissions/