Thoughts About My Deployment to Puerto Rico
by John Thurman, M.Div., M.A., LPCC
What would you do if you had lost everything in a natural disaster except your life? How would you handle the loss of fresh water, power, and no internet connectivity? What if you could not leave your neighborhood for two weeks because of toppled metal and concrete power polls. And finally, how would you manage to get around, when your roads are washed out?
Just three weeks ago winding down a deployment to San Juan where I was serving as a Stress Counselor for over 1900 FEMA employees who were working 7-12 hour shifts for the fourth week in a row. The folks are an incredible group of workers, who despite news reports, have a sincere and compassionate heart to help the resilient, strong people of Puerto Rico.
I got into San Juan on a Tuesday afternoon and was greeted by a colleague who took me to the San Juan Convention Center which would be my workplace for the next several days.
After meeting my point of contact and receiving an in-brief my associate and I headed over to my room at the Fortaleza Suites, in Old San Juan. Hotel space in San Juan is at a premium because of the lack of power and the influx of thousands of people who are helping out with the relief and rebuilding efforts on the island.
Once we had parked the rental, we began our short journey down the darkened, wagon wheeled rutted streets of Old Juan. As we walked, I heard the steady, mechanical purring of multiple lights giving generators which provided small patches of illumination on the dark path to our hotel.
Over the next several days I had conversations with nearly 250 individuals, attended multiple meetings and broke bread with linemen, nurses, Disaster Mental Health professionals, doctors, NGO (non-governmental agency) relief leaders, chaplains, relief workers from the mainland and other countries. Also, I had the honor of meeting several Puerto Rican mental health professional, local pastors and locals and learning from them.
One of my takeaways from my Puerto Rican friends is in spite of the destruction and devastation, the people of Puerto Rico are a tough, resilient lot.
One day I had the opportunity to go into the countryside with my friend Sam Porter, the Executive Director of Southern Baptist Disaster, whom I had met at the JFO. He wanted to show me what Southern Baptist was doing in a couple of local communities. As we made our way into the countryside, our first stop was Arecibo.
This city is on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, about 50 miles west of San Juan. It is the home of the Arecibo Observatory, for movie fans, it has been used in the James Bond movie, Golden Eye and in 1997 movie Contact which was based on Carl Sagan’s book and featured Jodie Foster.
Arecibo was hit with harsh winds and flood waters, Sam told me some of the fertile farmland had been under ten feet of water for over a week. Relief workers in this area were working with local churches and communities helping with “mud-outs,” water purification units, and building repair.
From Arecibo, we turned left and headed into the interior of the island to the town of Utuabo which is located in the central mountains. This area had significant damage due to flooding and wind damage. As Sam and I made our way from Arecibo to Utuabo was observed thousands of trees that were badly damaged or were blown over by the hellish winds that pummeled the island for hours. Also, there were hundreds of areas where mudslides have occurred. On one stretch of the road, we observed local collecting water from roadside springs.
Even though our little five-hour trip gave me just a small taste of the impact of Hurricane Maria on this beautiful, unincorporated American territory, I reaped deeper understanding of the effects of this storm on the island and its people. Also, after talking to numerous Puerto Rican resident, I gained a more profound sense of their resilience.
In addition to the devastation, there is another growing aftermath of the Hurricane, the displacement of thousands of Puerto Ricans including school children. As of November 10th, only 15% of the schools were open. In a news article from just a few days ago, Florida was trying to absorb 165,000 Puerto Rican, American citizens into its economy, many other states are also incorporating may newcomers into their economy at least for a season.
Puerto Rico has a long recovery ahead of them. Their economy was already in shambles due to years of crooked politics, horrible financial management, and corruption leading to a $118 billion debt crisis. Their new governor and his leadership team have promised to make the changes necessary to give Puerto Rico a promising future. I hope and pray it happens.
I believe, in my heart of hearts, that Puerto Rico will rise, like the ancient Phoenix, out of this devastation and become a prosperous and even the fifty-first state of the United States.
On my last day, I said my goodbyes and “Ubered” to the airport, where hundreds of people stood, bidding farewell to mothers, dads, and children headed to various parts of the mainland to meet up with family members to continue their education and to get away from the devastation for a season.
As my flight lifted off from San Juan’s Luis Marin Airport, I felt, a sense of relief because my work was done. However; this time I also experienced a profound sense of gratitude for things I usually take for granted, things like friendship, health, predictable electricity, safe water and food, freedom of movement, and internet access.
This Thanksgiving will be a new one for me. After seeing, hearing, and smelling the results of Hurricane Maria I have a new and fresh appreciation for the mundane. Also, as we move into this Thanksgiving, many of my friends from the New Mexico Army National Guard are landing in San Juan to help out. While they will miss Thanksgiving with their families, they will always remember, like many others helping out in Puerto Rico, a Thanksgiving where they were helping others.
Thanks for letting this helping traveling helper share some of his experience, have a Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving.
Most of these are my images, but the unwatermarked ones are from a Eluid Echer, a young photojournalist from Puerto Rico, please check out his powerful images.
John is a Counselor, Author, Speaker and Photographer that helps people "Get a Grip on Life."