Unidos por Puerto Rico (Unidos) distributed more than $38 million in grant funds to 193 nonprofit organizations as part of the disaster response to Hurricane María and 5.5 million pounds of donated goods as of December of 2018. In total, the organization impacted approximately 1,500,000 people on Puerto Rico, nearly half of the population.
Mariely Rivera, Executive Director of Unidos, was one of 50 speakers participating in the three-day event conference “Caribbean Strong-Building Resilience with Equity” held at the Sheraton at the end of February beginning of March. Nearly 450 participants attended the event from Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Canada, the mainland U.S. and China.
Unidos was created just after the powerful winds of Hurricane Irma scraped Puerto Rico and had to respond to the devastation caused by Hurricane María. Mariely joined the organization in November of 2017 at a critical time of disaster response. She began to organize a team and establish a process to review grant proposals according to the immediate needs. Unidos would first focus on grants focused on providing relief, then recovery and finally some rebuilding. Unidos received donations from more than 140,000 donors.
As of December of 2018, Unidos had distributed 10% of its funds for water and food, 22% for health services and products, 20% for social wellbeing, 20% for economic development and 28% for housing repairs and rebuilding.
Dr. Martín Montoya-Zavala, Director of Operations of the Public Health Trust of the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust (PRSTRT), was one of the organizers of the event. Key to understanding how to build resilience with equity is having a better grasp on the effect of climate change in the Caribbean and how to build capacity among the organizations present to improve disaster response.
Thus, the participation of John Englander, a renowned oceanographer, who is an expert on the rise of sea levels touched on one of the most relevant topics. His talk focused on “Rebuilding Higher for Storms, Tides, and Sea Level Rise”. For Martín it is critical to understand the impact of the projected rise of sea levels in the process of rebuilding. Englander has served as CEO for The International SeaKeepers and The Cousteau Society.
Other notable participants included: Dr. Richard Besser, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, whose address was titled “To Learn We Must Listen” and Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, who spoke of “Long-Term Power Outage; Putting Resilience into Practice.”
In addition to these topics, much of the conference focused on disaster preparedness, resilience and public health. There was a session on “Morbidity and Mortality Post Disaster” that included Dr. Satchit Balsari, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at the Harvard Medical School; Dr. Lynn Goldman, Dean of the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University; and Rebecca Noe of the Capacity Building Branch of the Centers for Disease Control.
In addition, the PRSTRT officially presented the Puerto Rico Hurricane Response Hub Technical Assistance Center at the conference that aims to “enhance environmental and occupational health recovery efforts in areas impacted by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and María by building disaster-related public health workforce capacity.” Funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this initiative is a collaboration between the National Coordinating Center for Public Health Training at the National Network for Public Health Institutes, the Puerto Rico Public Health Trust and other organizations in Puerto Rico.
Martín explained the many recommendations discussed at the Caribbean Strong conference will be included in a final report to be available shortly.
Aside from discussing the impact that Unidos had had on disaster recovery, Mariely focused her participation on the lessons learned and the recommendations for future response. “It is vital to identify the nonprofit organizations available as well as their capabilities,” she said. Because needs were so great, many non-profit organizations expanded their mission and created informal alliances with other non-profit organizations to extend their reach.
In looking to the future, it is important to create tools that can map available capabilities and formalize alliances among nonprofit organizations with the goal of establishing regional coalitions, following the number of emergency regions that the government has created for emergency response. Mariely suggested that organizations such as P.E.C.E.S., Inc. (Programa de Educación Comunal de Entrega de Servicios) in Humacao, which proved to be very effective in responding to communities in Puerto Rico’s southeast, or AMPI (Asociación Mayaguezana de Personas con Impedimentos, Inc.) in the west could be organizations with the capacity to build these regional coalitions of non-profit organizations that can leverage each other’s strength in responding more effectively to a disaster.
For information on Unidos, visit unidosporpuertorico.com, for information on the conference access the following link: http://prsciencetrust.org/newsletter-feb-mar2019/