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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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Holiday Reflections on Disaster Recovery in Puerto Rico

Author: Josh Barnes, HHS/ASPR Recovery Director
Published Date: 12/21/2018 4:51:00 PM
Category: Observances; Response & Recovery;

Sometimes minor inconveniences can bring out an unexpected time for reflection. During a recent trip to Puerto Rico to visit with the HHS recovery team, my flight from Washington, D.C. into San Juan was diverted to Ponce, a couple hours away. After finally landing around 4 a.m. I made the drive in the dark, crossing the Sierras of Cayey and Jájome in those early morning hours to San Juan. Looking back, I’m grateful for that quiet time in the dark of the morning to see first-hand how much difference a year can make.

As I drove across the island, it was refreshing to see homes and yards decorated with bright holiday lights. That may not seem out of the ordinary for most places across America this time of year, but last year at this time the power was still out for many parts of the island. I had made several similar drives a year ago, and the experience was substantively different. Compared to a year ago, it seems the light coming out of the valleys feels joyful.

The sheer size and magnitude of Hurricane Maria touched millions in Puerto Rico. Unlike most disasters, the damage was not limited to one specific area. The storm covered the entire island. While major progress has been made since September 2017, there’s still an enormous amount of work that still needs to be done. As you gather with your friends and family this holiday season, please remember there are many families in Puerto Rico still recovering from the storm.

This reality very much embodies the duality that many families feel as recovery from a disaster like Maria.  I can feel the upbeat positive attitude of Puerto Ricans who are celebrating a joyful season.  I can also feel the reminders that the losses left behind are still very real for many.  Families are still grieving from the loss of loved ones, loss of homes, loss of routines, loss of friends who have relocated and countless others.

As the recovery advances, it is important for Puerto Ricans (and the rest of us working with our new Puerto Rican friends) to recognize that impressive progress had made in the past year. The challenges and the ways in which survivors are continuing to move forward is remarkable.  I have found that as I talk to people, I can feel the difference in talking with folks in the communities over the last year.  The reality is that everyone is a survivor, and so they're each going through their own process for how to deal with the ramifications of the storms.

HHS' commitment to supporting Puerto Rico's recovery is unchanged. We're still going to be there to help work with our state and local counterparts to understand and address the major recovery barriers and what are the ways that we, collectively, can try to mitigate those barriers to deal with what's happening now.

As we go into the next year, we look forward to helping the Government of Puerto Rico build back better. We will continue to work with them in staying vigilant about recognizing the consequences of a major disaster also have a long “tail.” Disaster research tells us that there are repercussions in behavioral health and domestic violence and the impacts to children and youth reverberate over not just months and years but sometimes decades. We continue to keep a watchful eye on what's going to help those in need feeling the reverberations of a catastrophic storm over a year later.

Recovery continues to be a marathon.  This holiday season, I encourage my Puerto Rican friends to remember that they’re not alone in running the race.  Lastly, I’d ask all other Americans to remember that many people in Puerto Rico are still recovering from Hurricane Maria.  They are still running the marathon and they continue to face a long, hard, emotionally draining road ahead. As with all marathon runners, they need continued support as they move forward.

 


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