Nearly four years after Hurricane Maria wrought historical devastation in Puerto Rico and one week into the Atlantic hurricane season, nonprofit Direct Relief assured that the island is more resilient and better suited today to recover from a natural disaster.
Thomas Tighe, CEO of Direct Relief, explained that statistically, “very few people” die or suffer from an actual atmospheric event. Instead, the deathly aspect of a natural disaster is lack of access to medication and healthcare for individuals with chronic health conditions like diabetes, hypertension or asthma. “All of the research for the past 20 years has shown... that the unavailability of those things is what ends in these hospitalizations,” he stated.
After the 2017 storm and thanks largely to a $50 million donation by Abbvie, Direct Relief Puerto Rico has established multiple health centers in different municipalities to provide primary services, as well as 39 mobile medical units that can access communities affected by natural disasters or other emergencies.
“In addition, we donated about $2 million in a telehealth and telemedicine program, which provides centers with the equipment and platform to be able to access communities and individuals who are not able to reach community centers, so that they can continue the proper care,” informed Ivonne Rodríguez-Wiewall, executive advisor for Direct Relief Puerto Rico, adding that these initiatives are contained in the entity’s Hurricane and Emergency Preparedness program.
Moreover, another key component is energy infrastructure and telecommunications, both of which were battered by the Category 4 storm. Rodríguez-Wiewall said the entity is currently working on a radio system that would connect all the health centers, hospitals, the Department of Health and the organization’s main offices in Puerto Rico. This is in addition to various solar energy projects designed to assist communities and health centers.
“Not only are health centers better equipped and better prepared, but we have also learned how to work as a team and as a network. A couple of years ago, or even before Maria, yes, we were connected, but not like now,” she said.
THE WEEKLY JOURNAL asked, given these investments, plus other projects in the pipeline, if Puerto Rico is poised for a speedier recovery than in the wake of Maria. “We are better prepared, our infrastructure is stronger,” said Ana Umpierre, program coordinator for Direct Relief Puerto Rico. “We have been becoming emergency response experts. We have been through natural disasters, earthquakes and now the coronavirus emergency, and with the support from Direct Relief, I honestly have to say that we are ready to rumble.”
Investing in Resilient Energy Projects
Rodríguez-Wiewall stated that “in terms of electricity, which was the other thing that was lost after Maria, we have been looking for other sources of renewable energy, and we have been installing solar panels and battery backups in health centers across the island.”
The entity has developed 12 renewable energy projects islandwide and there are six more resilient power projects for health centers underway in the following municipalities: Barranquitas, Ciales, Florida, Ponce, Trujillo Alto and Vieques.
For the projects in development, Direct Relief Puerto Rico announced an allocation of $3 million as part of a $5 million commitment to install solar power generation and battery storage at critical sites across the island.
Assessing additional opportunities on the island
These initiatives include a 139 kilowatt (kW) solar photovoltaic and 114kW/464 kilowatt-hour (kWh) Tesla energy storage system for Prymed Medical Care in Ciales; a 64.35 kW photovoltaic and 60 kW/162kWh Tesla energy storage system for Neomed Center in Trujillo Alto; and a 139 kW solar photovoltaic & 114kW/464 kWh Tesla energy storage system for the Primary Health Services Center in the municipality of Florida, among others. These are slated to be completed between late 2021 and early 2022.
“Based on lessons learned from Hurricane Maria, Direct Relief has focused its efforts on emergency preparedness with sustainable and resilient solutions to improve response to future disasters in the short and long term. Projects such as the installation of renewable energy systems, infrastructure repairs, donations of mobile units and all-terrain vehicles that facilitate access to health services, are some of the initiatives that allowed primary health centers to take a leading role in emergency response to the 2020 earthquakes and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rodríguez-Wiewall affirmed.
Health Facilities in Island-Municipalities
Direct Relief Puerto Rico backed the creation of a health facility in the municipal island of Vieques, which has been deprived of its own hospital since the onslaught of Hurricane Maria. This center is equipped to provide primary health services to the small island's residents. Its success encouraged Direct Relief Puerto Rico to spearhead a similar project in the fellow municipal island of Culebras, which is also overlooked often by the central island.
“With the support of Direct Relief, we have made it possible for Vieques to have its primary health clinic with state-of-the-art clinical teams, it will be a reality to have primary health services, quality and constant. The next thing will be to ensure energy using solar panels. Today we are announcing that, thanks to a $1.5 million investment by Direct Relief, Culebra will also have a primary health center where quality will be consistent and infrastructure, resilient. Vieques and Culebra are on their way to having security in their health services including transportation in emergencies, Direct Relief and HealthproMed will make it happen," said Ivonne Rivera, Executive Director of HealthproMed.
- A shorter version of this story was published in the Jun. 9, 2021, e-Edition of The Weekly Journal.