When Gabby first told me she was going to Puerto Rico, I thought she was kidding. In hindsight, I don’t know why I thought that; a former beach lifeguard, avid traveler, and environmentalist, Gabby is one of the savviest and self-sufficient travelers I know — she did survive four days in the desert with me, after all.
That said, in fall of 2017, Puerto Rico was not a place many wanted to be. Disaster-ridden and a focal point of national controversy, the American media chose to focus more on the money involved in recovering the island than the fact there were human beings — human beings who welcome many “mainland Americans” in to enjoy their homeland’s culture, food, beaches and nightlife year after year, no less — who were now without basic necessities like water, electricity and food. During what felt like a never-ending news cycle of natural disasters barraging our coastlines in 2017, many of us became exhausted by one depressing headline after the next, and checked out when the area in question wasn’t as relatable as Texas or Florida. I’ll be honest; I didn’t feel a personal connection to Puerto Rico until one of my best friends decided to aid them during one of their darkest hours — not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t know.
If you share this perspective, I hope this interview will shed some light on Puerto Rico, its people, and what exactly goes into storm relief efforts from the perspective of someone who has been there. An environmental scientist for the EPA, Gabby has completed three voluntary recovery trips to Puerto Rico, and she expects there will be more to come.
If you feel compelled to make a donation, I’ve provided links to relief organizations in Puerto Rico at the bottom of this post.
Four Months, Three Trips to Puerto Rico
Let’s start with #thebasics. What is your role within the EPA?
I am an environmental scientist and also have a specialty in emergency response, specifically resource management, personnel management, inter-governmental coordination and drinking water quality analysis.
What were your thoughts about Puerto Rico before the storm? Did you visit PR in years prior?
I always thought of Puerto Rico as a beautiful Caribbean Island, and I had visited Puerto Rico just a year and a half ago for vacation with my sister and some friends. We stayed in Old San Juan and I was truly blown away by the architecture and scenery – it is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. I felt at ease during my vacation, in large part because the Puerto Rican people are extremely warm and welcoming, and I fell in love with the culture, the people, the food, and the music.
What compelled you to join the U.S. government’s relief efforts in Puerto Rico?
As a trained member of the emergency response team, I was requested to deploy to Puerto Rico for the hurricane relief effort. I wanted to help because I knew the state of the island was in and how desperately it needed basic necessities like clean drinking water, which is what I specialize in within the EPA.
Before your first deployment, what were your expectations and how did the EPA prepare you?
The news was depicting a devastated, desolate island with no power, no running water and no means of communication, so that’s what I was expecting. My first trip was in mid-November, approximately 47 days after Hurricane Maria. That sounds like a long time, but because of the amount of damage that was inflicted from the hurricane and the government’s slow monetary response, the island was still extremely devastated. Prior to deploying, we were briefed several times on what to expect, current conditions and equipment/supplies to pack. In that sense, I felt adequately prepared, however, you can never be prepared enough for an emergency – even after it has already happened.
So, after you arrived, what were the first 24 hours like?
When I was on the plane about to land in San Juan, I remember looking out at all the neighborhoods and houses in the surrounding areas of the city, and all I could see was a sea of blue. (Editor’s note: blue is the color of FEMA tarps that help protect damaged homes from the elements.)
Upon landing, driving conditions were extremely dangerous as most traffic lights were out and there were downed power lines, trees, and debris all over the roads. GPS signals were also not working, so I was relying on a map to drive to the island’s west coast.
All the trees throughout the island, especially in the mountain regions, were bare if they were even standing at all. I passed by houses that were destroyed, beaches washed out, grocery stores and malls all boarded up.
The day after my flight we started with an early morning meeting to discuss planning, logistics, and resources. Obtaining resources was somewhat of an issue because there were so many in high demand — the feeling of panic and confusion was palpable among our team of government employees, too.
What city do you stay in while you’re there? What are the accommodations like?
We stay at a hotel in Mayagüez — known as the “City of Mango” by locals — which is located on the west coast of the island about 15 miles south of Rincón. The accommodations aren’t horrible, but they are far from luxurious. We have running water and electricity, so we were better off than most of the island during my first trip in the fall.
What specific aid are you providing in Puerto Rico? What is a typical day like?
I was focusing on tasks related to environmental and health hazards, including cleaning up oil spills, hazardous and toxic substances, and testing for safe drinking water.
Most mornings, we stock our vehicles and drive into neighborhoods in order to distribute food and water to citizens, and also interview residents about anything else they may be in need of (think generators, medications, etc.).
I also act as a liaison between citizens in need and other agencies like FEMA and the Red Cross, who also have a presence on the island and actively provide support and resources.
I never realized you had so much interaction with the actual citizens of the island. What surprised you the most about the people of Puerto Rico?
Far and away, how positive and gracious the Puerto Ricans are and continue to be. From my first visit in November to now, I am still so shocked and humbled by the positivity, graciousness, and appreciation among Puerto Rico’s citizens. I have met and worked with so many of the locals who have basically lost everything — their entire house, car, etc. — and, yet, they are still positive and appreciative of any assistance they receive. Their gratitude makes the whole experience so much more rewarding.
I remember one day I was working up in the mountain region in a small town named Las Marias – an area that had been severely impacted by the storm. I had cases of water in the trunk of my truck and had pulled over in a neighborhood to get out and walk around to see if any of the residents needed anything. As I was walking around asking, I came across an older woman and I asked if she “Necesito agua?” (my Spanish isn’t the best). She misunderstood me and assumed I was asking for water for myself, so she went into her half-fallen down house and brought me out a bottle of water. Seeing the state of her house, I knew she did not have a large supply of water, and yet, she was willing to help me: a complete stranger. I can’t help but wonder if people would still be positive and appreciative if a similar situation happened in the America that we know.
It must be so bizarre to see these once-popular tourist areas completely destroyed – the way you describe it reminds me of the Upside Down in Stranger Things. What was the biggest challenge you faced during your deployment?
The abandoned animals. Being an animal lover, I got really upset seeing abandoned dogs, cats, and horses. I would carry dog and cat food in my vehicle to feed the animals. I would also take care of animals on my very few days off. I saw so many dead and emaciated animals – it shattered my heart — and so many of them are just left on the shores to fend for themselves.
Once I got more comfortable on the island, I coordinated with non-profits like The Sato Project who take location reports of animals in need and send personnel to help them and bring them into a shelter. From there, they work with veterinarians to have dogs checked up and cleared to fly to The States to be adopted.
That sounds so emotionally draining, especially when you consider all of the people in need in PR right now, too.
One of the most heartbreaking situations to deal with is trying to comfort someone that has lost their entire home, or has been living without power and running water for months. Nothing can prepare you for that.
No one talks about how Puerto Rico’s suicide rate spiked in the months following the storm. In one instance, I remember encountering a woman who was outside of her house cleaning debris off her lawn. My team and I stopped to check in and see if she needed anything, and as soon as she saw us she immediately broke down crying. She then proceeded to tell us about how her 24-year-old daughter had recently committed suicide after months without power, running water or communication with the outside world. It was devastating.
Not long after that, we met a cancer patient living up in the municipality of Utuado, a particularly mountainous region of Puerto Rico that cutoff by landslides after the storm. Without power, she was unable to keep her medications cold, and by the time we encountered her she was extremely panicked and distraught about the possibility of them becoming ineffective — I remember feeling so helpless and scared for her. Luckily, we were able to get in contact with FEMA in order to bring her a generator for her refrigerator within a few days.
These are just two examples of so many interactions I will never forget, and no matter how much suffering I encounter, I will always wish I could somehow do more.
How has your perspective changed since returning? What drives you to keep venturing to the island again and again?
In the beginning, I was feeling discouraged and disappointed about how much work still seemed to be left even after months of recovery efforts. That said, each time I return to the island, I do see that progress is being made.
The people of the island keep me coming back — they are what drives me to sacrifice my time at home and to put as much hard work as I can when I am here. After getting to know the citizens and the culture of the island, I’m happy to do anything that makes even a small difference.
How has Puerto Rico changed since your first trip? Have you seen improvements?
I have seen improvements from my first trip. In fact, the way Puerto Rico is now, it’s hard to picture the devastation that existed just a few months ago.
There are still many areas without running water or power, but conditions continue to improve. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico will never be the same as is was pre-Hurricane Maria. Some areas of Puerto Rico may never get power back or rebuild their houses, and many residents have left the island with no plans to return, so economic recovery efforts are far from over.
What is the biggest misconception mainland America has about Puerto Rico? What do you wish more people realized?
I wish more people realized that the people of Puerto Rico are doing a lot of work to help each other out and help the island to recover, as I think the biggest misconception is that Puerto Rico is not doing enough to help themselves and are relying solely on the U.S. government. We see a lot of residents passing out water and food at collection points throughout the island, water, and food that they purchased themselves. We see residents working to fix their houses themselves, without any assistance. The people of Puerto Rico are extremely resourceful and hardworking, which I have seen throughout the island during my time here.
That’s incredible. What’s next?
I am currently in Puerto Rico and am leaving on March 13th. The FEMA budget was extended by 60 days, and thus that also extends the EPA budget by 60 days. So much work still needs to be done, and I am glad the response budget extension was ultimately passed – it is so, so needed. I will most likely be requested to return to PR at the end of April or in early May.
How You Can Help
Per Gabby’s recommendation, consider donating to The Sato Project, which supports abandoned pets in Puerto Rico, Unidos por Puerto Rico, a group targeted at restoring small businesses affected by Hurrican Maria, or the American Red Cross — March 28 is Giving Day! If you want to add more #TravelGoals to your feed, keep up with Gabby here!
All photography provided by Gabrielle Buda. Interview condensed and edited for clarity.