Volunteers help Puerto Rico as Hurricane Fiona leaves people without water, food or power

Hurricane Fiona’s destructive path has curved eastward, heading toward Bermuda and posing life-threatening surf and rip current conditions for the U.S. East Coast and Atlantic Canada. But it has already left behind devastation in Puerto Rico, where much of the island is still without power or access to clean water.

Torrential rain from the hurricane — which made landfall on Sunday — caused historic flooding and many residents had to evacuate or be rescued after being trapped inside their homes. Now shelters are taking in hundreds of people.

In Salinas, a town in the southern part of Puerto Rico that was one of the hardest hit areas of the island, volunteers with Project HOPE's emergency response teams are stationed at the Escuela Superior Carlos Colón shelter. About 200 people were displaced at this location as of Wednesday.

“We still don’t have water or power. So right now, some of the buildings, some of the places are running with generators,” Sasha Flores, a member of the response team, told Yahoo News.

“Basically, it’s a lot of the elderly population and there also, the shelter was accepting animals. At the beginning, they had, like, 400 [people]. Right now they have 200, and animals are also accepted there.”

Project HOPE volunteers like Flores are evaluating and responding to health needs as well as securing medical supplies and PPE for those residing at the shelters. They are also working with partners to gather water and sanitation and hygiene supplies, which they are able to mobilize with the help of donations.

They are among several organizations accepting donations to help those in need.

Flores said she and her husband, who is a doctor, moved from Mexico to Puerto Rico and were present when Hurricane Maria — a Category 5 storm that left about 3,000 people dead — struck the island almost exactly five years ago.

Flores’s colleague, Gustavo Pagan, grew up in Puerto Rico and also deployed his volunteer services after Maria hit. He quipped that they earned a diploma from responding to that storm, the last major one to hit the island. It has helped them prepare for Fiona.

“We went blackout for us and personally, I went out of power for eight months in a row,” Pagan told Yahoo News.

“With the remembrance of Hurricane Maria, we got Fiona. So everybody's like talking about mental health and those type of changes in life.”

That’s a major part of the volunteers’ jobs: providing services for mental health and psychosocial support for those who need it.

Hurricane Fiona breached Puerto Rico as a Category 1 storm, with wind speeds between 74 mph and 95 mph, on Sept. 18 and left rainfall of up to 31 inches in some parts of the island, according to the National Weather Service and Accuweather.

It left 1.2 million people without energy on Tuesday. As of Thursday, approximately a million people were still without power.

Blame has shifted toward Luma Energy, the company contracted to fix Puerto Rico's outdated power grid. New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday called for a federal probe to investigate the energy provider as "residents continue to endure frequent outages and high electrical rates."

In August, Puerto Rico's governor, Pedro Pierluisi, distanced himself from the private company that his administration hired in 2021 to handle the U.S. territory's power transmission because of power outages happening well before the storm.

“I am not satisfied with the performance of Luma,” said Pierluisi, who previously had praised the company. “It is obvious to me that you have to make changes to your execution plan to significantly improve the service you are offering our people.”

The company tweeted on Wednesday, as interpreted by Google Translate, "LUMA and all our collaborators will not rest until all clients have electricity service and the electrical network is reenergized."

It also stated that crews are working around the clock to restore power despite “unstable conditions.”

At a Federal Emergency Management Agency briefing in New York on Thursday, President Biden announced he's authorized “100% federal funding for debris removal, search and rescue, power and water restoration, shelter and food, for the whole month” for Puerto Rico, and told Pierluisi that he can call him directly at any time.

And, to the people of Puerto Rico, he added: “We are with you, we are not going to walk away, we mean it.”

Project HOPE has also deployed an emergency response team to the Dominican Republic after Fiona struck on Monday, causing flooding, mudslides and damaged power lines. There, around 1 million people lost access to running water and about 700,000 homes and businesses had no power.

Through Project HOPE, Pagan has responded to disasters all over the world, including Mozambique. Closer to America, the nonprofit has provided aid for multiple disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean, including "the 2021 earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas in 2021, Hurricanes Eta and Iota in Central America in 2020, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017," according to the organization.

For Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Flores and Pagan said the best way people can help is by donating directly to Project HOPE's Fiona crisis response.

“We are identifying the needs that we have,” Flores said, “so we can also provide, with your support, to the rest of the population in Puerto Rico.”

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