Otto Flores, a professional surfer who lives in San Juan, narrowly escaped the brunt of Hurricane Irma. Although 100-mph winds and a lot of rain wiped out power for about two-thirds of Puerto Ricans and disrupted the water supply for over a third, what amounted to catastrophe elsewhere overlooked his home and beautiful family of four. Without hesitation, Otto and his wife, Andrea Neu, got to work helping devastated neighboring islands. Otto reached out to Jon Rose, the founder of Waves for Water and Andrea co-hosted a benefit yoga class to help their effort. Soon Otto was on a plane to St. Croix, where the organization had set up a staging area to distribute their low-tech water filters throughout the Virgin Islands.
Not 24 hours into that trip, another possible hurricane loomed. By Saturday, Sept. 16 — ten days after Irma had veered north towards Florida — the cyclone was identified by the National Weather Service as Tropical Storm Maria. It was quickly gaining strength and speed. Otto and Field Operations Director Rob McQueen regrouped, deciding to return to Puerto Rico, historically a lifeline for other Caribbean islands. “It feels really good to help my community and to identify a lot of people that could help,” Otto told me in early October as he drove in search of a generator. “A lot of people have stepped forward.” Maria touched down on September 20th, its 155-mph winds within two of the definition of a Category 5. Otto and Rob began to assemble a team, making assessments in various communities, providing free filters and instruction. With the capacity to remove bacteria and major biological contaminants from streams, rain or cistern water, 30 filters promised potable water for up to 3,000 people in a fishing co-op near Rincón, one of many stops.
Otto is no stranger to weather. As an athlete, he works under Mother Nature’s thumb; he has learned to observe and play by her rules. He respects more than most the ocean’s deadly potential. Yet, he’s lived in paradise for the past 43 years — no Category 4 storm has visited Puerto Rico since 1932, well before he was born.
In Maria’s aftermath, some islanders are finding themselves deserted. More and more residents are migrating, temporarily or otherwise, to mainland U.S., where friends and family already live. (Neu and the two Flores boys, ages 6 and 2, found a flight to Canada, where they’ll be with her family while the island starts to rebuild.) Red tape, a slowly-moving federal response and an utter lack of communication is delaying and even halting the distribution of food and bottled water. The bottles themselves will begin to pose a daunting environmental issue when more pressing concerns of survival abate. FEMA website updates disappeared, only to flicker back on without comment. While diesel and clean water are hard enough to come by, opportunists are taking advantage of the commotion, compounding the system’s inefficiencies.
Self-sufficiency, then, through the use of generators and clean water filters like Waves for Waters’, appears to be one of the likeliest ways forward for survivors. But outreach and community solidarity are necessary in forging such a path. Fortunately, humans are hardwired to come together after a disaster. As Otto puts it, “It takes a catastrophe for people to unite. I wish the community would stand strong like this on an everyday basis, but, by the same token, I’ve seen a lot of people light up and give a lending hand because of what’s happened.”
We hope those hands will continue to lend, especially as the holidays approach. Donations to organizations that provide essentials like clean drinking water, solar power and nutritious food will empower residents to rebuild in time for slow-roasted lechón and the all-night-long festivities of Nochebuena (Christmas Eve). By mid-October, José Andrés, the chef, had worked with local businesses to deliver 300,000 chef-prepared meals to locals through his World Central Kitchen. Around the same time, 90 percent of residents were still without power, so Resilient Power PR (among others) had begun to respond with solar panels to help people recharge. Other charities worth helping are listed here.
If you can spare them, a few dollars to any of these organizations will go a long way. Regardless, Otto reminds me, “Christmas is not going to stop because of Maria.” Puerto Ricans would never allow it.