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Giving ‘life’ to Puerto Rico

New York Teacher
Evelyn DeJesus OA 07.jpg
Brett Sherman
UFT Vice President Evelyn DeJesus (left) meets a school cafeteria worker in Puerto Rico, where she helped show how to use water purifiers delivered through the AFT’s Operation Agua program.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz displays a water purifier the UFT helped provide.

Water gives life.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September, the storm destroyed the island’s infrastructure, including the electrical systems that filter life-sustaining water. In the aftermath, many people were unwittingly drinking water contaminated by mudslides, human waste and debris.

In late November, as part of an American Federation of Teachers delegation, I visited the hurricane-wracked island for two days to deliver water purifiers to four schools in and around San Juan. It was part of Operation Agua, which is committed to delivering 100,000 water purifiers to Puerto Rican residents and businesses. At the time of our visit, a boil-water advisory was still in effect for the island’s 3.1 million residents.

My visit was official business but also immensely personal. As a Nuyorican, I visit several times a year. What I saw on this trip was heartbreaking: Palm trees and other vegetation stripped bare, highway guardrails wrapped around light poles and, most of all, people in need of the basics to live with dignity — food, safe water and shelter.

Operation Agua is an initiative spearheaded by the AFT; the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the AFT’s local affiliate in Puerto Rico; and other organizations. The in-home purifiers, which do not require electricity, filter up to 24 liters of safe water per day to a family in need. Operation Agua is also providing 50 large-capacity clean-water devices to nonprofit organizations and community-based groups.

We visited Puerto Rico more than 60 days after Hurricane Maria struck, yet electrical power was still sporadic. Hundreds of people were still living in shelters. Schools were in session for only a few hours a day, depending on the condition of the school buildings; about 150 of 1,000 schools had not reopened because of structural damage.

Through it all, Puerto Rican teachers have risen to the challenge, leading the way back to normalcy and counseling students, regardless of their own losses. School staff are experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome. As we showed cafeteria workers and the chapter leader how to use the purifiers, the chapter leader told me through tears, “We feel abandoned; you’re a blessing to us.”

It was my turn to cry when we entered another school and I heard a child in a wheelchair crying, “Quiero leche y agua” (“I want milk and water”).

Given how dire conditions on the island are, it’s deeply distressing to me that the rebuilding of Puerto Rico is not at the top of the U.S. agenda.

It should come as no surprise that the UFT and its members would respond to this catastrophe. The UFT Disaster Relief Fund, established in the wake of the terrorist attacks in 2001, has collected more than $44,000 from members for disaster relief in Puerto Rico. Many school chapters and individual members have raised funds and supplies for the island. The AFT Latino Caucus collected another $20,000 from UFT members at an Operation Agua fundraiser on Dec. 11. And a number of our Federation of Nurses/UFT members used vacation time to provide medical help to communities in need.

The union’s presence in Puerto Rico is important for another reason: The failed federal government response has left many Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens just like us, feeling abandoned. Prior to Hurricane Maria, the island was already deeply in debt and suffering from cuts in services, school closings and loss of population. After the storm, rescue and recovery efforts were slow and riddled with corruption by officials on the island and the mainland. It’s estimated that more than 140,000 people, seeing no future there, have left the island since September.

Our mission was not only to deliver water purifiers, but to let Puerto Ricans know they are not alone and have not been forgotten.

There is a good chance you will be reading this column just as many Puerto Ricans are celebrating Three Kings Day, the Jan. 6 holiday that is the heart of the island’s Christmas observance. I hope you will consider making a donation. Just $30 can provide a family with an in-home purifier.

There are signs of hope in Puerto Rico. During my brief visit, I saw many construction cranes placing new palm trees in the soil to replace those trees destroyed by the storm. I look forward to making a return visit and seeing more signs of renewal — and life — in the months ahead.