Downed power lines, destroyed buildings, stacks of debris and massive infrastructure challenges. This description may bring to mind the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. But for many in Puerto Rico, these conditions remain a constant five months after hurricanes Irma and Maria came ashore.
Last month I went to Puerto Rico on behalf of the CDC Foundation along with a group of business and philanthropic leaders traveling with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The purpose of the trip was to see firsthand the damage continuing to plague the island following last fall’s hurricanes and discuss opportunities for partnerships to help Puerto Rico recover and rebuild key infrastructure.
On the flight to San Juan, I sat next to a young woman and her child, who were returning to the island after relocating to the U.S. mainland following the hurricanes. My heart welled with emotion when mother and child, along with the other returning citizens, erupted in cheers and tears after the plane landed.
While progress is being made, it pains me to think of those I saw still battling daily challenges like a leaky tarp for a roof, cooking for a prolonged period over a fire, boiling water to drink or worrying about contracting an infectious disease. Perhaps even more harrowing is thinking about living in those conditions while caring for a loved one with a chronic health issue like diabetes or cancer.
As I traveled through the Caño Martín Peña community—a large informal settlement along a polluted channel that runs through San Juan—I saw firsthand homes without roofs, crumbled buildings and piled debris. I could only imagine the hardships the residents endured to fight unforgiving winds and rising floodwaters filled with sewage and garbage. Although facing constant health threats, the sense of commitment and resiliency I witnessed in the neighborhoods of Caño Martín Peña was both inspiring and humbling.
Though it’s disturbing that so many complex needs still exist, there is hope. That’s because since the storms hit the CDC Foundation and other organizations have been joining forces with donors to aid in recovery efforts to assist Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), helping make the future of people there brighter.
To date, the CDC Foundation through generous donor contributions has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide significant support to the recovery efforts in both U.S. territories. In Puerto Rico, for instance, we have supported the territory’s damaged public health labs by covering the costs to ship more than 1,850 specimens on behalf of nearly 1,300 patients from the island to CDC for testing. We have also invested in lab equipment, reagents and other supplies to replace items destroyed during the storms. Without effective labs and diagnostic capabilities, lives are at risk and health systems lack the ability to detect and respond rapidly to health threats like flu outbreaks or leptospirosis.
We were humbled to recently hear from Angie Trujillo, a microbiologist in CDC’s Bacterial Diseases Branch in the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. Angie told us, “We are very grateful for all the CDC Foundation has done. Lab supplies are arriving daily. With your help, the Puerto Rico Department of Health lab has received Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment recertification. What you have done has been fantastic.”
In addition, in both Puerto Rico and USVI, we have supported health risk education campaigns designed to get out critical health protection messaging. Even here in the State of Georgia we are providing critically-needed transportation and travel support for evacuees who have come to the U.S. mainland for specialized medical care.
The Foundation is continuing to aid Puerto Rico’s damaged public health labs by purchasing equipment and supplies. We are also funding a large-scale vaccination initiative across Puerto Rico, which will deliver vaccinations for influenza, hepatitis, tuberculosis and rabies—yes, rabies is an increased public health concern on the island from infected mongooses that were displaced from their natural environment during the storms.
While the CDC Foundation has assembled funding to support some of our planned work in Puerto Rico and USVI, additional support is urgently required to meet all of the needs coming forward where government assistance is not available. The needs include ongoing lab work in Puerto Rico, additional health risk communication campaigns in both territories and mobile health clinics in USVI needed to meet many of basic health requirements until permanent clinics are rebuilt. And in both territories, there is a need for specialized staff to assist health departments in carrying out essential recovery and prevention work.
You can show love to the people of Puerto Rico and USVI by donating to the CDC Foundation’s Emergency Response Fund. During the next month, your donation will be tripled through a generous matching gift opportunity provided by former CDC Foundation Board Member Robert A. Yellowlees. During this time, all donations to the hurricane response will be matched $2 for every $1 up to a total of $50,000.
You can make a difference now. Please take advantage of the opportunity to triple your gift by making a donation today!