HEROES AND HEROINES

With FEMA Overwhelmed, It’s Up to Nurses Left to Feed Starving Puerto Ricans

Barely half of the island has drinkable water, leaving volunteers from the mainland to provide the basic necessities of life while the federal government lags behind.

HUMACAO, Puerto Rico—Nurses came to Puerto Rico from the mainland United States to help treat the sick, but many are instead working to prevent starvation and dehydration.

Almost a month after Hurricane Maria smashed into the island, necessities remain scarce. Only 13 percent of the island and only 65 percent of the population has safe drinking water. Many people go to their nearest river stream to obtain water that is contaminated with leptospirosis, a disease caused by contamination by animal urine. Four deaths related to Maria are still being investigated as possible cases of leptospirosis. The official death count stands at 48.

“Clean water should be the number one priority of the government. We suspect more and more people on this island will get infected and possibly die from this,” said Mary Schizmar, one of the 56 nurses from the RN Response Network in the U.S. Schizmar was handing out bottled water treated with chlorine.

“They are rationing the water. There is a water cistern but they are reaching their last drop and this causes poor hygiene which translates into minor diseases,” said Randee Litten.

“I don’t know what’s taking FEMA so much time to move on from the assessment mode to intervention,” Litten said, comparing her days on the island to her chaotic day job as an emergency room nurse in California.

The nurses not only identified the areas where people lack access to clean water but also spent time going to grocery stores, shopping for necessity goods.

“Once we hit the streets we noticed lots of people were facing dehydration and starvation, so we switched gears [to provide food] since day one,” Litten said.

“We need to get moving, there’s a lot of hungry people waiting for us,” Litten said while hitting the road to feed as many people as they could before the sun set. Authorities told the nurses not to travel at night given the lack of electricity.

The nurses stopped by a store in Caguas for water but there was none in stock.

“We have the money, we just can’t find groceries stores to find food and water,” Litten said.

Although water was not available, the group brought about $3,000 worth of food and goods that was payed with money from a GoFundMe account Litten set up and has raised more than $50,000 in 13 days.

After gathering all the supplies needed, the nurses first stopped at a foster home in Juncos, a town east of San Juan. The wooden home of about 30 abandoned children was barely operating after a tree crashed through the kitchen roof.

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“The strong winds that ripped the roof of our library and kitchen are still fresh in their minds. This kind of initiative serves good on their torn spirit,” said Sister Sor Carma Carmona, the director of the foster home, while trying to safely store all the donated food the nurses had brought.

“God has heard our prayers. Thank you for this amazing gesture, may god bless you all,” she said, tearing up.

This was the second time the nurses visited the foster home. Their first visit was earlier this week to treat children that suffering from conjunctivitis.

From the foster home, the group drove up narrow driveways to Pasto Seco, an isolated community of about 1,100 residents in Humacao, one of the municipalities strongly damaged by the 155 mph sustained winds of Maria.

Thaliangelly Torres, a community leader of Pasto Seco was anxiously waiting for the nurses. While the nurses arrived, Torres opened up the doors to the local church where the group laid out all the canned goods so that they locals could grab-and-go food options that cater to their needs.

Tomato sauce, rice, cooking oil, canned meat, potatoes, spices, beans, and coffee were among the items brought in by the nurses.

Within 10 minutes from arriving, about 70 locals had already gathered in line, hoping to grab a bag and fill it with goods.

During the gathering, an emotional Jose Torres asked someone to translate words of appreciation.

“They’ve left us stranded. I want to thank you guys because you are the first ones to come,” Torres said, as translated from Spanish.