Hurricane Maria is regarded as the worst natural disaster on record for Puerto Rico, the strongest tropical cyclone worldwide in the year 2017, and the tenth-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record. Maria caused widespread devastation to homes, businesses, and livelihoods– exacerbating an already tenuous economic situation on the island. The category 5 event swept across Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 175mph, uprooting trees, downing cell towers, and tearing metal roofing off of homes and businesses. It damaged more than a third of the island’s 1.2 million occupied homes. In total, Hurricane Maria caused $90 billion in damages, ranking it the third costliest tropical cyclone on record.
In February 2018, five months after Hurricane Maria touched down on the island, NECHAMA sent an assessment team to survey the state of damage in communities, and begin making connections with possible community partners. In March 2018, the Puerto Rico Rebuild Program was launched, focusing solely on concrete and metal roof repairs and rebuilds. NECHAMA partnered with AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team (A-DRT) to identify our first clients and focused on serving these clients in the municipalities of Guaynabo and Loiza. As these first clients were assisted we continued to repair more homes based on contacts made from these first clients that walked up to our worksites.
At the end of April 2019, and after repairing over 100 homes, we overwent a Program review and determined that we needed to evolve our Rebuild Program to a Recovery Program. In the past, NECHAMA had mainly helped homeowners repair their homes. This time we have partnered with local organizations on the island to widen our impact, in scope and breadth.
Our volunteer pool surged to include State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY). Over school breaks in 2018 and 2019, every 2 weeks we received a cohort of 40 -60 college students who were committed to furthering the recovery of Puerto Rico. Each cohort was split into teams, which would rotate between worksites to get a holistic view of the environmental, infrastructural, and economic setbacks caused by Hurricanes Irma & Maria. Our goal was not only to educate, but to involve every student in multiple sectors of Puerto Rico’s recovery process.
As part of NECHAMA’s holistic view of our Recovery Program, we engaged with and supported local organizations who will be here long after we are gone. Recovering from this disaster requires more than repairing the roofs and ensuring their stability in preparation for the next storm, it also includes addressing the systemic issues highlighted in the aftermath of the hurricane. While we continued our Concrete Roof Repair Project, we shifted our focus to develop the following Projects: Agricultural Development, Mangrove Restoration, and Forest Restoration. We believe in diversifying our recovery efforts to reflect the current needs of the island and build towards more resilient communities.
The El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system. At nearly 29,000 acres, it is one of the smallest in size, yet one of the most biologically diverse of the national forests hosting hundreds of animal and plant species, some of which are found only here. USDA-FS scope of work detailed trail opening/maintenance, sign and structure installation, campsite clearing and restoration, revitalization of public recreation areas, and lastly restoration of rain shelters & watersheds. On trails, NECHAMA volunteers cleared debris from blocked water drainage systems on main roads in the rainforest and worked on 6 of the Forest Services’ most visited trails.
In the 1940’s, a project called “Operation Bootstrap” was put in place by Congress to kickstart Puerto Rico’s economy, moving the island away from agricultural production towards increased manufacturing and tourism. This led to an 85% import driven food system, leaving only 15% of Puerto Rico’s food to be sourced locally. Following Hurricane Maria when the island was unable to receive supplies, there was a severe food shortage and minimal locals resources to address it.
We joined with the farming group Siembra Tres Vidas to support their mission to make Puerto Rico more agriculturally self-sufficient. Their network of farms also includes a crop share, allowing community members an opportunity to volunteer their time in exchange for fresh produce. Our volunteers worked with them at multiple farms harvesting crops, clearing ground, and planting to expand their operations.
After the hurricanes, driving along the island coastline proved difficult due to large mounds of sand, blown inland from the beaches, covering the roads. Not only did Maria destroy homes and roads with water and wind, but it damaged the environment by hindering wildlife and destroying natural ecosystems. Mangroves play a pivotal role to the environment due to their extensive root system in mitigating soil erosion and protecting shorelines against severe weather events. Mangroves are also a key player in desalination, the process of removing minerals and salts from water that can be harmful for agriculture.
NECHAMA volunteers assisted local organization Caras Con Causa two days out of the week with the production and growth of mangroves in the community nursery, removal of invasive species to create and maintain planting sites, and the planting and monitoring of new self- mangrove forests alongside other native species.
Concrete is used extensively in mass-produced residential construction in Puerto Rico. For those that have the finances to do so, a layer of sealant is applied to protect the surface from any filtration, however, it needs to be reapplied every 3-5 years to maintain its integrity. Without sealant and proper re-application, many roofs were left unprotected and exposed to the elements during Hurricane Maria.
Concrete Roof Repair includes both exterior work (pressure washing, scraping, priming, and sealing) and interior restoration. Both of these areas are addressed because over time water filtering through the cracks will weaken the surrounding concrete, and these sections need to be removed and replaced to keep the integrity of the structure intact.
Our volunteers completed concrete roof repair work on 119 homes located in the areas of Loiza, Guaynabo, Trujillo Alto, Toa Alto, Carolina, Catańo, Rio Grande.
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