Caring for people with severe disabilities during and after a major disaster

As they prepared for the second hurricane in a month, the designated staff of the Instituto Psicopedagógico were supposed to stay 12 hours to care for 88 special needs residents as Hurricane Maria made its way through Puerto Rico.  They ended up staying 72 hours to feed and care for the residents.

“It was an act of love,” said Milagros Vargas, Executive Director of one of the few private organizations that tends to the needs of people with severe intellectual disabilities in Puerto Rico. The staff stayed behind with no communication with their loved ones or knowledge of how their property had fared in one of the most destructive hurricanes in the Caribbean. Eight out of 10 e residents are severely disabled and need assistance to carry out basic every day activities such as eating and bathing.

At 4 AM on September 20, a few hours before the hurricane made landfall, Milagros realized the storm’s power would hold them hostage for hours. With the winds raging, and before the hurricane made landfall, Milagros and her staff would need to make the meals and distribute the residents’ medication then and there, roughly two hours before the hurricane made landfall. It would be too dangerous to venture out later. They ran across the sprawling facilities, 11 buildings in six acres, and managed to get the meals distributed before the full might of the storm hit.

Milagros thought they were prepared.  They had two generators, water tanks, holding 13,000 gallons, enough for three days, and food and medication for two weeks.  In their 69 years of history, they thought they had seen everything. Yet, Hurricane María rattled their sense of preparedness, particularly knowing they are responsible for the care of a vulnerable population.

Volunteers poured in as soon as the storm left.  Out of nowhere, 100 volunteers from the Mormon church found out of their needs and showed up on the Saturday after the storm and cleared the grounds from debris.  Meanwhile, Church’s Chicken franchise made sure they had diesel for the generator, food and drinking water. But, Hurricane Maria had exposed how vulnerable they were, although the safety and wellbeing of the residents was never in question and service continued without interruptions.

Reaching out for help

As custodians of one of the groups most in need in Puerto Rico, Milagros moved rapidly to look for ways to strengthen the organization’s preparedness for the next disaster. After all, the Instituto housed 90 people in its main facility and had three group homes with an additional 18 residents.

Meanwhile she found out United for Puerto Rico had been created to provide disaster relief and recovery assistance in the wake of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane María. Milagros turned to them and to her relief, Mariely Rivera, the recently hired Executive Director of United for Puerto Rico, worked closely with her to come up with a grant proposal to support strengthening the organization’s resiliency.

Milagros explained that the $500,000 grant that was finally approved focuses on four areas: security and safety, emotional support for the staff, infection control and basic needs. With the funds, the Instituto is well on its way to strengthen its ability to withstand other disasters.

Yet, she continues to plan, to expand the programs available for one of the most forgotten ones amongst us, those who cannot care for themselves. For more information visit and

icrossingAdminCaring for people with severe disabilities during and after a major disaster