On September 20, 2017, many Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland waited and worried, listening for any word on the calamity unfolding on the island of Puerto Rico. We remained glued to our televisions and with our phones in hand hoping for any word from family or friends. Frustrated with the lack of information and media coverage in the first few days, many of us turned to social media. Still nothing. For over 24 hours, there was no information other than the fact that a category four hurricane had slammed into the home of 3.5 million U.S. residents.
Slowly, images and videos started to appear on television from the brave reporters who arrived on the island in advance of Hurricane Maria. But still, for those of us with family, friends, or colleagues on the island there was no way to communicate. Because the storm knocked out the island’s entire power grid, including all phone and internet connectivity, it took many people weeks to finally hear about the fate of their loved ones. For people like me, whose family home is far from the San Juan metropolitan area, it took well over a week to hear from family. It was the longest nine days of my life. Others waited even longer.
What caused such a massive failure to respond to the needs of 3.5 million U.S. citizens?
In the months that followed, frustration turned to anger for many as we saw the failure of multiple systems—on multiple fronts. The result of these governmental failures created a humanitarian crisis that lasted for almost a year after the hurricane. Puerto Rico suffered the longest blackout in U.S. history, the second longest worldwide. For weeks, we saw images of the Puerto Rican people desperately trying to survive without access to food, water, medical care, or power. People living in precarious situations. We watched in horror as government officials called Puerto Rico’s situation a “good news story”. We watched incredulously as people touted the death rate number of 16, when those of us with ties to the island knew, even back then, that the number was much, much higher.
It did not have to be this way.
Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP) knew it needed to step in and provide support to the people of Puerto Rico. We needed to be part of the response to the humanitarian crisis that would unfold for months to come. We immediately opened up our bilingual crowdfunding platform HIPGive to provide family, friends, anyone who wanted to help Puerto Rico, a trusted place to donate to the island’s nonprofit organizations. We knew that once the island’s nonprofits were up and running, they would be the lifeline for hundreds of communities as they started the difficult process of rebuilding. What we didn’t know then was how long that process would take, or the toll it would take on the residents of the island. One year later, and after the loss of almost 3,000 lives, Puerto Ricans are still in the process of rebuilding their world.
What is our responsibility now to our fellow Americans on the island?
As Puerto Ricans continue the recovery work needed to put their island back on its feet for the long term, HIP stays engaged. In May of 2018, HIP helped lead a delegation of philanthropic leaders to the island. In June, we hosted a session with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York focused on philanthropic opportunities to assist Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after the devastation caused by both Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
We have deployed funds to organizations like the Puerto Rico Community Foundation and La Red de Fundaciones de Puerto Rico that help reopen the doors of other community nonprofits. We funded a private sector driven non-profit, Grupo Guayacan, which is helping small business owners get back on their feet, to help spur economic recovery in their respective communities. We continue our work with partners like the Hispanic Federation, and CDFIs and community credit unions through the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions.
HIP serves as the conscience of philanthropy and as such, we will stay focused on the needs of Puerto Rico for the long-term. We will continue to focus on the resources, capital, and expertise still needed to invest in hyper-local infrastructure on the island; to support for preparedness systems that will help people stay online and open, supplying basic needs to residents. We will continue to focus on economic development and a “homecoming plan” to help those who were forced to evacuate, make a successful transition back. Many of these efforts are underway, but we need to grow to scale. The Puerto Rican diaspora on the U.S. mainland has accomplished much, but now U.S. foundations must step up and do their part.
Puerto Ricans continue to show us their tenacity, creativity, ingenuity, and capacity—even one full year later. Now, philanthropy must prove that we have the will, the capacity, and the focus to do better.