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Person of the Year: Maria’s Unsung Heroes

By on December 15, 2017

Editor’s note: The following article originally appeared in the December 14 print edition of Caribbean Business.

As is customary at publications across the Americas, Caribbean Business selects a Person of the Year from a short list of candidates who epitomize the most significant developments having an impact on Puerto Rico across the calendar year. To break with tradition, as soon as Latin Media House acquired Caribbean Business we deviated from our typical Persons of the Year in the Public and Private Sectors with the editorial board’s selection of the Debt Monster—Puerto Rico’s towering $69 billion debt load—as the 2015 Person of the Year because it became the focus of most dialogue and news coverage in Puerto Rico and beyond its shores.

In 2017, the world’s focus on Puerto Rico has centered on the devastation wrought by a wind beast named Maria, which pounded the island with 155 mile per hour sustained winds leaving it without electric power service and destroying tens of thousands of homes. For the extreme resilience, altruism and resolve in the face of chaos, who more deserving of the title than the people of Puerto Rico, who banded together to come to the aid of those in dire need—to share power, to share meals, to deliver essential goods.

We salute Maria’s Unsung Heroes—the 2017 Person of the Year. Ahead are vignettes of some of the heroic initiatives taken up by these ambassadors of goodwill. They are only a few of a great many, representative of the relief brigades that made a difference in Puerto Rico’s recovery.

—The Editors

Para la Naturaleza

The trees that were able to withstand Hurricane Maria’s onslaught took only days to grow foliage again, and today the greenery of the landscape can be seen once again. However, many structures, such as homes, businesses and farms, remain in a state of destruction, a constant reminder of the crisis in the aftermath of the storm.

Nonprofit organization Para La Naturaleza, a unit of the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust, became aware of this contrast when, after the hurricane, its members went out to identify the damage to vegetation and fauna, which was significant, at nurseries and protected green areas. However, the surrounding communities were also greatly affected, so they became the entity’s priority as they began recovery and reconstruction efforts.

“A few years ago, we already began to create an entrepreneurial program that has grown in the past six to seven years, and recently, we were focusing on working with the communities near our properties,” explained Fernando Lloveras, president of the environmental entity.

To help people with basic recovery efforts such as clearing roads, stabilizing structures, getting tarps for those who lost their roof, as well as bringing water, food and supplies, they created the Para La Naturaleza Community Fund. The fund is assisting communities such as Las Croabas in Fajardo, which is next to Las Cabezas de San Juan Natural Reserve; the Cantito sector and La Esperanza, near Hacienda La Esperanza in Manatí; the Corral Viejo and Magueño communities next to Hacienda Buena Vista in Ponce; as well as communities and public schools in Barranquitas and Aibonito.

They set up a collection area with the Center for a New Economy’s Puerto Rico Recovery Fund at the Old Aqueduct of Río Piedras, where they distributed 350,000 pounds of supplies and 1,156 boxes of personal hygiene items donated by Unicef, the United Nations agency.

“I think the important thing now is that we continue with the recovery, not only of physical assets, but of all of us, the communities and those who suffered the impact of the hurricane. We have to look at how nature is recovering, and I think that will give us many lessons and a lot of inspiration for us to be resilient,” he concluded.

To direct their efforts, they are already recruiting volunteers and seeking donations through their official website:

Connect Relief

One of the main problems encountered by organizations that wanted to help those affected by Hurricane Maria was the need for a database that would indicate where the emergency needs were and how to get supplies and services to those places.

With that in mind, the Connect Relief platform, an electronic tool to provide constantly updated data on the specific needs of municipalities and communities in Puerto Rico, came to life.

The database includes specific information such as the number of families that need help, by municipality and community. The platform also has a registry of aid collection centers, hospitals, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) centers, a section to register volunteers, and links for those who want to contribute financially.

More than 150 Connect Relief volunteers have gone out into the field to record this data, since many regions outside the San Juan metropolitan area remain isolated communications-wise. Users also send information via social media (@ConnectRelief on Twitter), email ( or through the WhatsApp application (787-234-0680). As aid arrives, the information is updated to avoid duplicated efforts.

“The more information collected and the more organizations and people use it, the more effective this tool becomes,” said Joaquín Alonso, one of Connect Relief’s founders. In addition, as a biologist, he works with the Rayo de Luna nonprofit, an initiative of Harimau Conservation, an entity that empowers communities through energy independence, education and conservation.

The idea behind Connect Relief arose from the experiences lived by co-founder Michael Fernández in Nicaragua and Guatemala after the passage of other hurricanes and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Fernández realized the need to have a central place where people could channel requests for help and for those who wanted to provide it to have access to information. Fernández has his own entity, Caras con Causa, which promotes community development in needy sections of the Cataño and Guaynabo communities.

Rayo de Luna, Caras con Causa and Propel Business, the latter a startup that creates digital platforms and technological products, all were part of the Community of Collaboration & Social Innovation of Banco Popular Foundation. Each spent about two years at a space designed to “create an environment of collaboration between organizations,” according to its website. Its creators are currently working on the second phase, collecting census data that will allow authorities and other organizations to have a clearer picture of the island’s state after the disaster, which areas were most affected and what the priority needs are.

Cossma in your community

Communities in southeast and central Puerto Rico were the first to be hit hard by Hurricane Maria. As soon as the winds died down, community leaders stepped out of their shelters to identify what victims’ needs were and to help.

“Maria’s path had a major impact on our communities, so the following week we began to re-establish our primary healthcare services and identify the needs of our communities,” explained Norma Antomattei, administrator of Cossma (the Spanish acronym for Health Services & Advanced Medicine Corp.), a nonprofit that groups several Centros 330 primary health clinics.

This led them to visit communities in need in the municipalities of Cidra, San Lorenzo, Las Piedras, Humacao, Yabucoa and Aibonito. “We went to the leaders of the communities, and with them we established a work plan to provide medicine, primary health services and even groceries that were donated to us,” Antomattei said.

In the process, they established collaboration agreements with Crearte in Yabucoa, Pasoso in Aibonito, Ronald McDonald Foundation and the Aguas Buenas Office of the First Lady, among others, to distribute supplies.

“They are the true leaders. They had their communities organized and that allowed our work to be more efficient,” she added.

In Las Piedras, they went house to house in several communities to take medicine and doctors to evaluate residents’ health, regardless of income.

The organization’s assistance included 12,107 cases in which it provided physical, educational and mental health services.

“On our visits to communities, we began to identify families who have yet to receive help or have problems accessing food and water, especially people who are elderly. The organization has been able to distribute [to homes in remote regions or areas of great need] more than 200 grocery bags that included canned chicken, tuna, sausage, premium ham or lunch meat, milk, cereal or oatmeal, rice, biscuits, potatoes, 100% juice and canned fruit,” Antomattei said.

Centro para Emprendedores and Foundation for Puerto Rico

“With Maria, we lost three production cycles, two air conditioners, electronic equipment and part of the roof,” said Aileen Caraballo, who along with her husband, Francisco Santana, owns Grupo Vesan, which focuses on lettuce production in the Ponce area. The couple estimates that as a result of the hurricane, they had about $15,000 in losses and 3,000 fewer heads of lettuce to distribute to customers over the coming months.

A few weeks ago, however, they received a helping hand. Staff from the Centro para Emprendedores, a nonprofit organization led by Nerma Albertorio, approached them to offer support via a $3,000 donation and strategic advice to keep their business operating despite Puerto Rico’s situation. The center was also in charge of a field study to identify other businesses that need financial assistance. The aid is funded by the Foundation for Puerto Rico donation program.

“The experience has been spectacular—to see the commitment these businessowners have to their companies and with the employees who work for them. It has surprised us a lot when they tell us we are the first to come to them and ask how they are,” Albertorio said.

Besides Grupo Vesan, some 30 businesses have benefited from the initiative, which has had an impact on companies in Ponce, Aguadilla and San Juan as well.

So far, the program has assisted 39 businesses and disbursed $91,000 in aid.

Some of the businesses that have received support are Ponce’s El Nuevo Coquí, La Esquina del León, WR Accessory, The Red Door Bar & Grill, Anonymous SK8 Bar, Bajari Pizza & Bistro, Gift Shop & Party House, Embroidery Boutique, Joyería Cayan, VIP Solutions, D’Arcos, La Fonda de Edgar and Utopía.

“The expectation is to expand the program to 10 additional areas and to work with them side-by-side in the process of rethinking their business model and to identify new opportunities to stay in the market. The idea is to build on this to drive the economic activity generated when these processes occur,” Albertorio said.

Ranger American

In the security business, after Hurricane Irma made landfall in several of the Lesser Antilles and left a lot of devastation, Ranger American often established a collection center to gather supplies to send to their employees and other people in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Puerto Rico didn’t receive the full intensity of Hurricane Irma but some areas were severely affected, which is why the initiative quickly expanded to include Puerto Rico, explained Viviana Ortiz, Communications Outreach director for Ranger American.

Having a structure in place and supplies in stock proved to be crucial for Ranger American to be able to provide immediate help in the island’s recovery efforts.

“The Friday after [Hurricane Maria,] the warehouse was filled with all the donations we had received. Thanks to those donations we already had in the warehouse, that same Friday we were able to immediately supply the Red Cross,” Ortiz explained.

Ortiz indicated that the collection center has also established missions in collaboration with the Ricky Martin Foundation and other entities. Furthermore, it has also become a collection center for other companies and organizations such as Starbucks, Ortiz said.

“We have turned from a collection center into also being a distribution entity,” Ortiz stated.

Best Buy

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, many stores in Puerto Rico experienced severe damages, leaving many employees with uncertainty, but with the case of Best Buy, the company demonstrated a commitment to its employees.

While the stores had to temporarily close to repair damages left by the major hurricane, Best Buy continued to pay its employees and even brought much needed supplies to the island.

“Our main focus has been the safety and well-being of our Best Buy employees. We rented planes to fly in supplies, such as diapers, food, water and other necessities, for our employees,” explained Danielle Schumann, a spokesperson for Best Buy.

The planes were not just bringing in help but also aiding with the evacuation of people who needed to leave the island, whether for health or other reasons. “We evacuated a number of employees and family members to the U.S. mainland directly after Hurricane Maria. We have also continued to pay employees since September,” Schumann continued.

Schumann explained that this help was a way for the company to show its gratitude for its employees. “Our employees have given so much to the company throughout the years, so it was a no-brainer that we would be
there for them in this time of need,” Schumann said.

As for the next step, Best Buy is ready to restart operations during the Christmas season. “We’re excited to reopen our Hato Rey [San Juan] store on Dec. 15. We will also continue to be there for our employees as needed.”

J.C. Penney Co.

Aside from damages to stores’ infrastructure, the business also had to cope with the lack of electricity. The combination of these two factors meant several malls in Puerto Rico could not open immediately after the storm. Since several J.C. Penny locations were unable to open quickly, including in major malls in the San Juan metropolitan area, it meant this department store, with more than 100 years of history, had to delay the reopening of its doors to the public.

However, this did not mean J.C. Penney forgot about its employees. The company continued to pay its employees and delivered them much-needed supplies.

“J.C. Penney has, indeed, paid Puerto Rico associates in the storm’s aftermath,” stated Joey Thomas, a spokesperson for the department store. He continued: “Beyond pay, in the weeks following the storm, we delivered containers of much-needed supplies for our associates in Puerto Rico. Our teams dispersed water and nonperishable food, personal hygiene items, cleaning products, batteries, generators and more.”

While not all locations are ready to re-enter the market, four of the stores reopened their doors in time for Black Friday. As for the employees who work in the locations that remain closed, Thomas explained that J.C. Penney is still assisting them.

“We’ve since reopened four of our seven locations on the island, so at this time, we’re paying associates employed in Puerto Rico stores that currently remain closed,” Thomas said.

General Student Council for UPR-Río Piedras Campus

From essays to tests and presentations, and all the administrative paperwork that needs to be filled out, a university is a very demanding place for students and hunger just makes it that much more difficult.

That is why the General Student Council (CGE by its Spanish initials) of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Río Piedras campus wanted to create a space for students to be able to get a warm meal. After their initial campaign, called “Repórtate Gallera,” aimed at locating and communicating with students, the CGE established the Comedor Solidario (a shared dining room) with assistance from the administration of the municipality of San Juan.

“We wanted to do something regarding nutrition, because we [CGE] were worried that when classes restarted Oct. 30 we wouldn’t have a mechanism to provide a warm meal to students who didn’t have electricity,” explained Wilmarí De Jesús, a student representative for the campus on the University Board.

De Jesús went on to explain that some students come every day to the center and have expressed this is where they eat their only warm meal of the day.

After opening its doors to the public, the student council realized students also needed a place to study, and established a place with wi-fi and other equipment, such as printers, for students to tackle their academic workload.

It is worth mentioning that the Comedor Solidario is also open to the Río Piedras community. Furthermore, the CGE also assists people who visit the Comedor Solidario by identifying other available resources.

Aside from the work at the Comedor Solidario, the CGE continues to help students with more administrative issues, such as students who have studies abroad next semester and have to deal with the extension of the UPR academic calendar.

Chef Bryan López Figueroa

Hurricane Maria did not create hunger on the island but it certainly exacerbated the situation. Given the condition of the roads, the lack of electricity, and problems with fuel and supply distribution, many were left isolated and, indeed, hungry.

Chef Bryan López Figueroa explained that he became concerned with all those aforementioned factors, and “the word ‘hunger’ kept floating around,” so he started looking for ways he could provide food to isolated areas. However, given the collapse of the telecommunications system, his initiative had to wait about three weeks, until he could communicate with people.

López eventually was put in touch with diaspora leaders and was able to acquire assistance from Nuestro Ideal, an organization with ties to several countries in Latin America. With Nuestro Ideal’s collaboration, he was able to acquire a “small kitchen with which they could guarantee 800 plates per meal.” These meals fed people in Moca, Yauco, Sabana Grande, San Germán, Orocovis, Morovis and Barranquitas, among other municipalities.

Once López and his team arrived to a town, the priority was to bring food to elderly and other people with mobility challenges, but their missions were not just about providing a plate of food. López explained that they also arrive with people who can provide talks about food sustainability and other topics.

This initiative is in an expansion process. “The kitchen’s second phase will arrive soon, and bit by bit we continue to use the donations from many incredible people and groups, from Latin Americans and Puerto Ricans,” the chef said.

Prior to Hurricane Maria, López had worked in various restaurants on the island, such as Don Pepe and Hacienda el Jibarito.

P.R. Se Pone de Pie

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was left with only 18 operational hospitals, at least to some degree. Furthermore, there were only 60 pharmacies operating for the 3.4 million people estimated to still live on the island.

Dr. Carlos Mellado, one of the founders of Haiti Se Pone de Pie, started gathering a group of doctors to help with health issues that were mounting in Puerto Rico. Haiti se Pone de Pie is an organization of doctors from Puerto Rico that flew to Haiti after its devastating earthquake to help provide medical services to survivors. Many of the doctors accompanying Mellado are also from Haiti Se Pone de Pie.

Once the team was assembled, their first missions were to Housing Department shelters but later started identifying other areas in isolated municipalities that needed assistance. When doctors from Puerto Rico Se Pone de Pie couldn’t arrive by land, the group received help from the National Guard and the Joint Forces of Rapid Action (FURA by its Spanish acronym) to arrive by helicopter.

While the group has visited most, if not all, municipalities, some were deemed more critical and, therefore, the doctors have visited more than once. Some of those municipalities include Utuado, Vieques, Culebra, Canóvanas, Humacao, Yabucoa, Quebradillas, Adjuntas, Lares, Vega Alta, Cidra and Cayey.

When comparing the two catastrophic events, Mellado explained that in the case of Haiti, the biggest immediate problem was wounds and fractures. In the case of Puerto Rico, one of the biggest problems was lack of access to medication or treatment for chronic conditions. In Puerto Rico, Mellado explained that problems relating to overcrowding and lack of salubrious conditions also quickly created health problems.


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