Stories of Survival

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News February 2018

Nearly five months ago, Hurricane Maria pounded Puerto Rico, and as the island slowly recovers, the welfare of PVA members living there is a primary concern for PVA's national leaders.

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Hurricane Maria was slamming into Puerto Rico as a powerful Category 4 storm on Sept. 20, 2017, and 87-year-old Juan Gonzalez was watching as the ocean surge rose and poured in closer to his home near the beach about 50 miles west of San Juan. As the water began to rise on his front porch in Arecibo, Gonzalez did the only thing he could think of — he lifted himself out of his power wheelchair and onto a table. He then grabbed onto the iron bars on his windows and held on for dear life as wind gusts of 100-plus mph battered his body and the water rose 2 feet below him. The Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Puerto Rico Chapter member and Army veteran clung to those bars for an hour before the wind calmed down enough for him to let go and survey the damage to his home and neighborhood. The second story of his house was completely gone. His wheelchair, walker and home hospital bed were ruined from water damage. For 20 days, he was without power or water. He lost 12 pounds because he couldn’t use his wheelchair to get to the store and had no family nearby to help him. 

“For two days, I didn’t want to leave the house because I was in shock,” Gonzalez says through an interpreter. “I didn’t think the water would come so far. I thought I’d be OK here.”

By early December, 77 days post-hurricane, his electricity had been restored, but he still had no potable water. 

PVA On A Mission

Gonzalez’s situation isn’t unique as this U.S. territory inches its way to recovery and a “new normal” with boarded up shops, downed power lines and uprooted trees lining the roads almost five months after Maria. While the devastation impacted all Puerto Rico residents to various degrees, not having access to electricity, food, water and sometimes medical supplies for weeks — even months — is an especially dangerous situation for residents with disabilities like Gonzalez, who sustained a spinal-cord injury 24 years ago after falling during a bout of vertigo. That’s why a contingent of PVA’s national leadership headed to the island in early December. They wanted to check on PVA members and ensure all their needs are being met.  

“I’ve been emphatic about helping our veterans in Puerto Rico due to the hurricane because I knew of the hardships there would be,” says PVA National Vice President and Puerto Rico chapter liaison Hack Albertson. “Can you imagine using a power chair, electrical bed, a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure machine) … it would just be unbearable to not have water to clean up all the messes and things we get into.”

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The PVA group visited five members’ homes spanning the distance between San Juan and the remote mountains of Utuado. They also met with several members and staff in the San Juan Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center and talked with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“Not only are our members our number one priority, our Paralyzed Veterans of America members, but the whole island nation and people with disabilities [are], what they go through in situations like this,” says PVA National President David Zurfluh. “If able-bodied people are suffering, if they’re suffering as bad as we’ve seen, just imagine someone with a disability or spinal-cord injury. It’s gotta be devastating.”

Part of the group’s mission also involved seeing how PVA’s Disaster Relief Fund has helped some survivors. Gonzalez was beginning repairs to his home with the help of PVA’s grant in December. That financial boost will come in handy, too, as the income from his second-story rental property is now lost. The VA sent him a new bed and mobility aids were on their way. Gonzalez says he didn’t qualify for FEMA funds to rebuild his house, so the remainder of the repairs will come out of pocket.

“It’s interesting, when I went to Houston (after Hurricane Harvey in August), that was one thing, but the thing I realized is Houston is connected with states around it. They (other states) weren’t affected, so resources could get there fairly fast,” says Zurfluh. “When you’re on an island nation like that, two or three hours away from Florida, things are really different and going from the urban areas to the mountain areas I think is what shocked me the most. Seeing all the street lights down, seeing the traffic and people just kind of figuring it out, literally. It seemed here in San Juan things were fair. It’s kind of what I expected. I’d heard the countryside was bad, but when I actually saw it, I was amazed that people could survive the way they could. Hearing stories of individuals being stuck for three weeks
or a month before somebody got to them.” 

“I’m Not Alone”

Army veteran and PVA member William Rodriguez wasn’t stuck in his home, but he was still awaiting a response from government or emergency assistance agencies to which he submitted applications.

“My first comment was, ‘I’m paying more than $2,000 to FEMA for insurance, for what?’ For nothing,” he says. “I know they use that money for people living in other conditions and all, I understand that, but they must be a little more serious. They were not prepared for this. Nobody was prepared for this. This is something I never thought I could live [through].”

Like many others on the island, Rodriguez didn’t want to leave his San Juan home or his family during the storm. Rodriguez, a former Green Beret who injured his spine in 1974 after attempting to stop a driverless truck from plowing into his platoon during a combat exercise, was still using a generator to supply his home with electricity in early December. Several skylights had shattered from the force of the rain and wind, flooding his home. His solar water heater and cistern were ripped from his roof and his carport was badly damaged. He was looking to purchase an alternative energy source because, in addition to the high cost and scarcity of diesel fuel for his generator, the noise and fumes are a nuisance to his neighbors. After Zurfluh presented him with a $1,500 grant check from PVA’s Disaster Relief Fund, Rodriguez was moved to tears. 

“PVA was the only agency that showed up here,” Rodriguez says. “I spent about three weeks trying to get FEMA, trying to get people from the state of emergency, and no one responded. The only one who came here was a guy from PVA … with water, with food, and with a great desire that we can make it through. And that’s powerful, very powerful. Money, you can spend it, but the feeling I have right now, looking at you people, that I’m not alone … I know it’s not going to be easy. There’s still many situations to solve here in Puerto Rico. And to make it worse, now we have politicians fighting each other. You did this, you did that — not only in Puerto Rico, but also in Washington, D.C.”

Communication Barriers

While the lack of federal response was frustrating for several PVA members, an even bigger obstacle
was the failure of the island’s communication infrastructure, including mail service, telephones and internet.

“For people with disabilities, the thing that levels the playing field is technology, and what this has done, is it’s taken it all away and it has moved people back to the Middle Ages,” says Madeleine Goldfarb, Disability Integration advisor lead for FEMA.

Goldfarb’s office is charged with coordinating resources during disaster response and recovery efforts and ensuring plans are inclusive of people with disabilities. 

 “There is a time frame where lifesaving is very important,” says Adriana Zorrilla, FEMA program liaison to health. “Once that is stabilized, they will move to the recovery phase. Here in Puerto Rico, we are transitioning from response to recovery in some areas. Some areas are still in response mode because they are more fragile. It’s not stabilized enough to move to the recovery.”

The first step for PVA is to educate all members on how to navigate the application process and create a list of those who need assistance. Once FEMA knows who those individuals are and where they’re located, the agency can deliver supplies via volunteer organizations or review their cases individually to resolve their issues.

“You can be the eyes and tell us what’s going on,” says Josephine Carmona, FEMA immediate needs lead, life saving/life sustaining. “I go to community leaders, I say, ‘I need your eyes,’ because the municipalities are so overburdened, they can’t do anything. So community leaders are coming in and telling me what’s going on.”

For VA officials, the communication collapse also meant an inability to locate vulnerable veterans, including more than 300 PVA members living on the island.

“Because this incident or emergency had a very different component, which was the lack of communication, we had never lived that previously,” says San Juan VA Medical Center Acting Director Antonio Sanchez, MD. “We had hurricanes before, so living without water, living without power for us was almost the same … being completely uncommunicated, this is completely new for us. We didn’t have electronic records, we didn’t have telephone, we didn’t have internet for a couple of days in the beginning in the metropolitan area, and we still continue without having communication in all the island.”

Sanchez says the VA did what it could to facilitate assistance where it could and sent teams to track down those who couldn’t make it to the hospital or a VA clinic. But the VA’s primary function in an emergency is to address acute health care issues, he says.

“We are just a health care organization, and the veterans didn’t necessarily have health care needs, they had other needs, like social needs, other kinds of needs,” says Sanchez. “And then at that moment is when we rely upon the other agencies. Let’s say that they lost their houses, we don’t have the mechanism to provide belongings. We opened three shelters here in the facility to bring and leave our veterans here, no problem. But that was a temporary shelter to transition them to the shelters that officially were open outside in the community. But obviously there were several veterans asking us for food, for water, for other needs, other clothing, and obviously we needed to coordinate with those (other) agencies to supply them with them because we aren’t that kind of agency. We provide health care services, not the other part.”

While the VA was in a better position than other hospitals in the area as far as supplies, utilities and infrastructure, Sanchez also felt like the VA was sometimes stonewalled by a perception that veterans could afford to take care of themselves or that the VA’s central office would provide all the help the veterans needed.

“They think because veterans are federal, they can survive,” Sanchez says. “And that’s why it’s so important the role of PVA and other veterans service [organizations], and our role as well, to let them know, listen, we are part of this society, and we need to assure they can afford all their needs.”

More Work To Do

Zurfluh says he felt encouraged after meeting with the VA staff and was hopeful that the lessons learned in Puerto Rico would transfer to future disasters.

 “They, too, have problems,” Zurfluh says. “This is something that nobody anticipated or expected. They’ve done what they can, and the fact that they want to partner with us in the future to create a registry so we can get to members faster in the future, use the technology we have like the cloud … it’s really encouraging. I think their heart’s in the right place, their minds are in the right place, and I think we can partner together and get something done.”

In addition to collecting an accurate, updated member registry with physical and mailing addresses and other pertinent information, Zurfluh says he’d like to create a committee of chapter members, representatives and national directors who’ve been through disasters to map out a plan to connect with members prior to any emergency situation.

“We spent $165,000 [in grants] here, and there will probably be more money, but that’s just up to me and everybody else to get that money and get those resources, whether we have to work extra hard on fundraising, be tightening the budget in places, I don’t care. We have to help our members. That’s the number one goal,” says Zurfluh. 

To that end, PVA chapters have been stepping forward to help. With some of the funds, the Puerto Rico chapter hopes to buy solar generators, in addition to food, bottled water and other supplies. The Center for a New Economy and UPS Inc., have offered to help with distribution.

“PVA came to see what we can do to make these veterans’ lives sustainable and better until Puerto Rico’s recovery,” says Albertson. “And there are still veterans living without water, without proper hygiene ability, without food, no electricity, and I say that’ll continue here for another year. But PVA’s going to be here. We’re going to make sure that our veterans have everything they need, and we’re going to work to see that the other government agencies are forced to do what they’re supposed to be doing, because that’s what PVA does.”


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