Hurricane Fiona Ravages Puerto Rico
Erica Tavares, Senior Director of US Programs, speaks to Fox Weather about the impact of the storm and how International Medical Corps is helping.
International Medical Corps is mobilizing resources to launch a response in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. Assessments are underway across the island, but conditions remain dangerous due to debris, flooding and the threat of additional landslides. Hospital partners are operational, but rainwater and flooding have significantly damaged equipment.
International Medical Corps has been supporting long-term recovery efforts in Puerto Rico since two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, struck the island in 2017. When earthquakes shook the island in January 2020, our San Juan-based team responded within 48 hours, providing critical sanitation, hygiene, nutrition and mental health services. Within two months, COVID-19 spread to the island, exacerbating needs among those already vulnerable to healthcare interruptions or experiencing the mental health effects that accompany repeated disasters and ongoing stress and uncertainty.
Today, we continue essential response and recovery work in Puerto Rico. Our work includes providing essential relief supplies, strengthening health facilities so that they can treat COVID-19 patients and provide vaccinations, and training local first responders and community leaders.
It took nearly a full year to restore electric power to all parts of the island
Accessing clean water was difficult, increasing the risk of disease
Health facilities and other critical infrastructure suffered severe damage
Primary healthcare became harder to access in the aftermath of the hurricanes, as demand for urgent care spiked, crowding out time for treatment of more routine chronic conditions. International Medical Corps addressed this gap by partnering with five federally qualified health centers in Puerto Rico to increase community outreach in remote areas. In total, we deployed 20 volunteer doctors and nurses in six teams to support mobile medical centers across the island, providing consultations for nearly 1,000 patients in 46 municipalities, known as barrios. This support also helped give local health workers—many of whom had been responding nonstop since the storms hit—a break.
The January 2020 earthquakes in Puerto Rico devastated a significant geographic area, with 33 municipalities included in state and federal emergency declarations. With homes damaged and thousands displaced, evacuation shelters and informal camps were set up—but they lacked safe access to water, sanitation and proper hygiene. International Medical Corps reached 9,143 disaster-affected women, men and children with services and relief supplies, and served 610,306 persons in Puerto Rico through community awareness and outreach. As relief turned to recovery, our teams provided access to safe water via water survival boxes, and addressed problems at community wells to help people meet their own basic needs in future emergencies.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, International Medical Corps began working with L Asociación de Salud Primaria de Puerto Rico (ASPPR)—a network of more than 70 federally qualified health clinics focused on providing care to low-income families across the island—to ensure that health facilities could keep their doors open to serve the vast influx of patients affected by the disaster. With electric power down across the island, our support included supplying generators and water bladders to six health facilities, enabling them to restore electricity and provide clean drinking water at the health centers. To reach remote communities, International Medical Corps deployed physicians and nurses alongside ASPPR staff, providing mobile clinical care in hard-to-reach areas and reaching about 1,000 people. International Medical Corps medical teams also worked to address underlying health needs exacerbated by the storm, including hygiene and nutritional care.
Without electricity, Puerto Rico’s residents were unable to pump water into their homes for cooking, bathing or toilet flushing. Though water services have largely been restored, significant health concerns remain due to a lack of reliable drinking water in several municipalities. International Medical Corps has provided 500-gallon capacity water bladders to six health facilities to help increase access to potable water. We also have distributed nearly 15,000 hygiene kits, as well as wound-care kits, solar lights and other supplies, to help families stay healthy in the aftermath of natural disasters.
During Hurricane Maria, our teams partnered with two local organizations—La Liga de la Leche and Alimentación Segura Infantil—to implement nutrition activities, including counseling on breastfeeding and on infant and young-child feeding (IYCF) practices for new and expectant mothers. Together, we reached 771 women with counseling and education, while distributing more than 1,060 breastfeeding-support items. In response to the 2020 earthquakes, our teams mobilized these existing relationships to provide training on IYCF in emergencies, and supplies for new and expectant mothers, including food support, electric and manual breast pumps, and baby kits.
Both the earthquakes and COVID-19 disrupted proper nutrition channels, with households experiencing unemployment and food insecurity. Our nutrition teams provided training and capacity-building to parents, caregivers, and health and social workers with courses on “Healthy Shopping on a Budget” and “Management of Chronic Disease in Emergencies.” We addressed immediate and long-term recovery needs with food gift cards, so that parents could practice health shopping and cooking. We also provided solar upgrades to fix electricity-reliability problems at a nursing home that frequently experienced brownouts, despite being home to 18 vulnerable patients, several of whom relied on enteral feeding.
Using a community-based approach, International Medical Corps conducts awareness sessions focused on psychoeducation for emotional regulation, suicide prevention and crisis-coping skills, and supports referrals when higher levels of care are needed. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, our mental health teams—assisted by 49 local volunteers—provided psychological first aid to about 1,000 individuals, including 134 children suffering with emotional distress.
When COVID-19 began spreading in March 2020, our mental health teams pivoted from in-person events to virtual training, and turned to traditional and social media to address suicide and mental health openly and directly. A series of media campaigns that included television, radio, newspaper and social media messaging combatted the myth that talking about suicide could provoke self-harm, and provided tools for stress management and emotional regulation for community members overcome with the loss and uncertainty caused by repeated disasters. In addition, we donated technology to enable four psychiatric facilities to transition their outpatient services to telehealth, and provided 34 mental health workers at these facilities with training on suicide prevention as well as a therapeutic art activity to relieve stress and facilitate emotional expression.
When it struck, Hurricane Irma was recorded as the 11th most intense hurricane in the Atlantic basin, maintaining maximum intensity for 37 hours during the week of September 5. Hurricane Maria followed less than two weeks later, traveling over Dominica on September 18 as a Category 5 storm, and later over Puerto Rico on September 20.Read more about our response