Reflections on Serving a Strong People Facing Intricate Fragility, One Year After Hurricane Maria

It’s been a year. Recovering from a disaster like Hurricane Maria was never expected to be complete by now. A Category 4 hurricane, Maria engulfed the Islands of Puerto Rico on the 20th of September 2017, leaving thousands of people dead, many more without IMG_7790the necessities of life, transforming certain ecosystems forever, traumatizing survivors, and changing the Islands of Puerto Rico forevermore. Hurricane Maria lead to heartache and hope, for people on the Islands and those of us watching in solidarity from afar. And on this anniversary, those of us who are very far away but left a part of our hearts there, still are pondering how to assist from here in the years ahead.

Since Maria, in my capacity as a law professor and director of the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have been to Puerto Rico five times. I traveled there in December, again for two weeks over January-February, then returned three times in the summer (in June, July, and August). As a lawyer offering pro bono policy and legal service, my presence was not needed immediately after the storm. I got there after some of the worst visible damage was repaired, and the planning for how to help people, communities, and the territory recover began in earnest. As I look back, I arrived as the intricate fragility of Puerto Rico’s new reality was setting in.

IMG_8178Through those trips, I have seen progress in recovery, and gotten to know people of amazing resilience. I have also come to understand the nature of the legal limitations facing the territory. I have puzzled about the legacy of challenging energy and water delivery services and how to encourage real energy, climate justice, and other sustainability. I have witnessed the tough economics of many of those whose families have called the Islands home for generations (as compared to those who visit to play or profit). I have seen the gorgeous ecosystem which has regrown in some ways, but been immutably changed in others. And I have looked into the eyes and heard the stories of some of those who are working for access to true justice.

My two favorite trips were when I had the honor of travelling alongside over a dozen amazing #UBLawResponds-PR student attorneys. With the backing of generous donors and the many extra hours of labor by dedicated staff, these young people worked extremely hard to prepare and serve in the wake of the disaster. The University atIMG_9516 Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinicwas the best of service-learning, offering raw insight into both human needs and human strength. The Clinic showed these soon-to-be attorneys up close what people with legal and policy training can do…and what they can’t do. It left most of them wanting to do more, not only in Puerto Rico, but also for other vulnerable populations.

Yet here we are, a year after Maria struck. In the reports that look back today, we can read and listen to incredibly intense stories. Like the one from NPR exploring how an “unbearable debt crisis, the antiquated power grid and gross political ambition and unreliability were accomplices to the natural disaster.”Or story exploring some personal aftermath published by the New York Times entitled “Sunrise Melodies and Tearful Reflections: Puerto Rico a Year After Maria,” relating the experiences of people “still wrangling with the federal government over money to rebuild their home” and noting that “generosity and the solidarity among neighbors was the only positive remnant of the storm.” Or one ABC affiliate’s video, reporting on a town where #UBLawResponds-PR Student Attorneys assisted with pro bono legal services, in a piece entitled “AccuWeather in Puerto Rico: Hundreds of homes in Loiza still damaged 1 year after Hurricane Maria.”Or a Reuters piece, that relays a heartbreaking truth: “shuttered businesses, blue tarp roofs and extensively damaged homes can still be seen throughout Puerto Rico a year after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island with 150 mile-per-hour winds, and access to electricity and fresh water remain spotty.” Or the Associate Press story “For Puerto Rico’s poor, hurricane was heavy blow” that tells the story of a man who received seriously insufficient federal aid and has emptied his pension since the storm, and “sees no immediate prospect of moving out of the only habitable space in his home, an enclosed balcony still missing windows from Maria.” Such vivid coverage of the actual storm itself one year ago was only the beginning. Stories of the tragic aftermath and the intricate fragility will continue for years to come.

IMG_9295#UBLawResponds-PR knows firsthand what Puerto Rico is facing, and is continuing to do work with and for Puerto Rico community partners. At this point, our work is primarily in the areas of resilience and energy/climate justice, insurance, and work on behalf of veterans who live there. We are proud of the service we have already done, and remain committed to being of continuing service from Buffalo. We know that, ¡Puerto Rico se levanta! (loosely translated to Puerto Rico stands up (or rises)) … and #UBLawResponds-PR will continue to stand with them.

 

 

The End of the Beginning: #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic has just commenced our journey

IMG_1454

For those of you who have followed this blog, you know that in January 2018, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic had an amazing service-learning adventure. After more than five weeks of classwork and preparation starting mid-December 2017 in Buffalo, these students, myself, and other UB staff were ready to travel to Puerto Rico. There we met experts, stood with law students and proficient faculty from University of Puerto Rico’s Law School, worked with other UPR experts, assisted community partners on legal brigades, and gathered on-the-ground data, stories, and experience to help draft papers and reports that we hope will inform ways forward after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

While in Puerto Rico, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys helped local lawyers file over 80 FEMA appeals and provide other legal assistance. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys raised money and purchased supplies and solar lamps for more than 800 families, delivered on multiple humanitarian brigades to strong people in distant places who have been without water, power, and other basic supplies for more than four months. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys met with local experts to plan long-term community-based research projects. You may have read about some of these adventures through Student Attorney blog posts.

What those blog posts may not have made clear, however, is the amazing fact that #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys worked from early morning to late at night (often past midnight) every day. They were fierce in their commitment to (but gentle in their delivery of) both access to justice and basic supplies. The dedication of UB’s students made my heart sing (hace latir mi corazón).

I have met with each of these amazing Student Attorneys since our return. To a person, they remain committed to ensuring that the work of this clinic will continue. You will have a chance to read their final papers and reports for this course on this website next month. But that will not be the conclusion of the overall work.

IMG_1458

When this formal course wraps up later this month, it will only be the end of this first chapter. In other words … it will be the end of the beginning.

The mission that the students drafted during our January class has not changed:

Because recovery goes beyond disaster relief, #UBLawResponds provides practical legal research and thoughtful pro bono service, through an ongoing collaborative effort to empower a resilient Puerto Rico.

 

El camino a la restauración va más allá de responder a los efectos de un desastre natural. La misión de la clínica legal de la Universidad del Estado de Nueva York es contribuir al proceso de empoderamiento de Puerto Rico proveyendo servicios de investigación legal gratuitos con aplicaciones prácticas en colaboración con la comunidad puertorriqueña y sus aliados. 

Stay tuned. #PRSeLevanta, #UBLawResponds stands with them.

Moving Beyond “Un Poquito de Español”

04_25_40When I interviewed with Professor Connolly for a position in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic she asked me if I spoke any Spanish. I could tell it wasn’t a deal-breaker if I didn’t, but I couldn’t imagine UB Law helping people recover from the hurricane without it. I told her excitedly that I had been really working on getting fluent … for the last ten years.

I have always regretted letting my proficiency in the language slide after high school, but also never fully gave up. As a result, I’ve spent the last ten years telling people I speak “un poquito de español,” and encouraging them to use it with me – then missing the punchline to all the best jokes.
When I got to Puerto Rico this time I promised myself I would make the most concerted effort I could to learn, practice, and speak the language while here. Full immersion. And doing so has been the most enriching thing about the experience thus far, because it connects me to the people. It feels like the most meaningful thing I could do, to learn their language, and talk about their struggles with them in it. To drop s’s with them and wish one other good luck.

When we arrived at my first “humanitarian brigade,” (providing supplies like solar lamps to those still recovering from Hurricane Maria) I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been told we would travel on-foot through the mountains, giving out whatever supplies we could to these communities, who were both hit the hardest by the hurricane and had the least resources to recover. Although we gave out soap and towels, the most important item were the solar lamps – because, unbelievably, almost every one of the houses we visited was still without power.

Where we were in the mountains most people speak only Spanish, and I wanted to try and use the opportunity to practice with people. But it turns out explaining how a solar lamp works is more complicated than ordering bacalaitos! It was a situation that could have scared me off from communicating, but the #UBLawResponds team encouraged me to embrace the opportunity instead and face my fears. Their support propelled me into practicing enough that I could lead a group of students without knowledge of the language provide supplies to residents all on our own.

I’m certain my grammar was not always correct, and I nodded and smiled through some bits I couldn’t quite catch, but ultimately the connection was made. I can’t begin to describe the warmth and compassion I received from these incredibly resilient people. They applauded my attempt where they could have been frustrated, and together we all understood one another a little better. I came to Puerto Rico with #UBLawResponds to try and help people here feel appreciated, and instead I found myself being offered water from someone who hadn’t had running water since María. The breadth of this island’s resiliency and beauty is unbounded. I am forever grateful.

So, go for it! Puerto Rico needs meaningful help from all kinds of people with all kinds of expertise, and even though many of the citizens speak some English, at least trying to speak with them in their language sets a reverent tone unlike anything else.

C7A481F6-6DAD-416D-A2C3-412E8FB53F8D

The Simple Things In Life: Observations of post-Maria Puerto Rico

10_37_42Four months have passed since hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico and conditions are far less than adequate, but the people are pushing through and doing the best they can with what they’ve been given.  Private companies, organizations, and individuals have stepped up to work with their fellow Americans where the government has failed.  Most of all, the sense of community and perseverance among Puerto Ricans has been extremely touching and motivating.

As a student attorney in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law, I have observed that even in the most rehabilitated areas of San Juan, it is common to find electric poles snapped in half, transformers dangling a few feet from the ground, hundreds of feet of electric cables lining the edges of the roads, homes with tarp roofs, as well as homes with no roof at all that are still inhabited. The majority of traffic lights still do not work at all, many road and highway signs are uprooted and knocked-over, and there are periodic piles of brush and debris on the sides of roads. There are never ending remnants of the destruction Maria wrought and reminders of the abandonment of Puerto Rico.

Our #UBLawResponds law clinic has been going on what we call “humanitarian brigades” in rural towns, where we bring communities necessities such as soap, baby wipes, adult diapers, batteries, bed pads, towels, and solar lamps. So far, it has been one of the most important experiences of my life. People are struggling so hard just to survive. After Maria, thousands of people began leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland and as time has passed, thousands more people followed suit. Some abandoned houses have laundry hanging on the patio along with plants tastefully placed potted plants. Some of the most recently abandoned houses look as if the occupants disappeared mid-day.

This exodus to the mainland has led to tangential problems with serious consequences. Numerous disabled and bed-ridden people have died because their neighbors and caretakers moved to the mainland and no one remained who knew about their condition. On one brigade, we stopped at the house of a bed-ridden individual to give them a box of supplies, but he had died two days before we got there. A neighbor was caring for another elderly bed-ridden individual. When we began giving the caretaker some general supplies, she was very touched … but when we gave her a towel, she began to cry. A towel. A simple $2.88 bath towel from Walmart meant so much to this kind woman that she began to cry.

As difficult as these encounters are, I am thankful for them. I am thankful we are able to help people in significant ways. I am thankful for the reality check and perspective they provide. Most of all, I am thankful I get to see the strength, kindness, resilience, and perseverance of Puerto Ricans.

#PRSeLevanta! If you would like to support the continuing work of #UBLawResponds, please click here.

The Forgotten People: Puerto Rico’s Elderly and Disabled After Hurricane Maria

IMG_0750 (2)

During my time as a student attorney in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistant Clinic, I have been fortunate enough to be able to go on a few of what we call “humanitarian brigades.” During these brigades, we go into some of the more impoverished communities that have been impacted by Hurricane Maria. The communities of Arroyo and Maunabo that I visited are still dealing with the loss of power four months later, and some houses are still without water. When we go on these brigades our goal is simple: bring some essential goods and solar lamps directly to people’s homes. Though through the course of the brigades I have been invited into many homes and discovered a population that has been forgotten by much of society… the elderly and disabled.

The hurricane has created hardships in every community, with the loss of homes, electricity, water, and lives. The one population that has been struggling more than others on the road to recovery are the elderly and disabled. These individuals were having difficulties caring for themselves before the disaster, and now months later have to continue that struggle through conditions of high temperatures, darkness and filth. I have met some amazing people who are doing all they can to care for elderly and disabled friends and neighbors unable to care for themselves either physically or financially. These self-assumed caregivers have kept this population alive, but with such high poverty in the communities, caring for others can come at a cost to oneself. Our community liaisons during the brigades have been wonderful in pointing out the elderly and disabled within a community who have the highest level of need, but we can only provide so much. The problem of appropriate care will be an ongoing issue.

The humanitarian work we have done has been truly rewarding, and an emotional rollercoaster at times. There was one visit in particular where an elderly woman was bedridden and being taken care of by her neighbor. We provided a solar lamp, soap, adult diapers and baby wipes, but it was the sight of a towel that made the caregiver instantly start crying. We rushed to grab some more towels for them, and while these towels were exactly what they needed, she kept crying because she was amazed that we cared. It is so easy during this work to have a sense of guilt or helplessness because we want to do so much more for these people, but in that moment I knew that we had done good by showing the communities that we cared, and showing the elderly and disabled that they were not forgotten.

The #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic has provided student attorneys with a unique opportunity to speak directly to the individuals impacted and discover the needs they have that aren’t being identified. We have heard stories of people being found sick and alone in their beds because their caregivers left the island, and people dying on hospital steps because they were unable to make it there before the hospital closed. These stories describe a larger issue of how people care for the elderly and disabled when they are barely able to care for themselves. The Puerto Ricans I have met who are caring for them are giving all they can, but they shouldn’t have to. There needs to be a way for the communities and government to respond to these particular needs, so that this population receives appropriate care again, and people stop dying due to hurricane-related issues.

#UBLawResponds has been fortunate enough to receive donations, which have made providing the goods during the humanitarian brigades possible. We are always looking to provide more humanitarian support, which requires more resources, so I ask that you consider donating  to directly impact the people we serve. If you are unable to donate, then I would ask that you take some time to consider the people in your own life that might need support, and see how you can serve in your own communities.