I could see it from the sky above Puerto Rico. The island was no longer a rolling blanket of lowland and highland forests. A rare Category 5 hurricane, Maria, had ripped nearly every leaf from every kapok, tree fern, palm, and courbaril. But when I got on the ground, underneath the brown tangles of trunks and branches, I spotted bright new shoots of green.
I crisscrossed the island over five days, photographing hurricane relief carried out by people, communities, and nongovernmental organizations.
In the small town of Punta Santiago, every home and business sustained damage. Houses that did stand up to 155 mile-per-hour winds were soaked in up to five feet of brackish water. But the hurricane didn't end just because the rain and wind had moved on. Floodwaters had contaminated most of the food and stored water.
Cut off from rescue and help, the 5,000 residents of Punta Santiago knew what they had to do. They gathered salvageable food, collected water and medicines, and shared what they had collected with their neighbors in greatest need. For 10 days they cooked communal meals with help from a nonprofit named Programa de Educación Comunal de Entrega y Servicio (PECES), which for two decades has provided programs in three core areas: education, prevention services for at-risk populations, and entrepreneurship and development training. The nonprofit reopened its campus as soon as it cleared debris from its front gate, offering shelter and whatever supplies had been spared by the storm.
Twelve days after the storm, help came to them from the skies. A nonprofit named the Center for a New Economy, with partner Espacios Abiertos, dispatched helicopters to drop food and supplies. A think tank with deep connections to stateside nonprofits and Puerto Ricans everywhere, CNE had quickly established the Puerto Rico Recovery Fund. Because of its reputation, CNE raised more than a million dollars in the week after the storm. They not only provided food and relief items, but also developed a multitiered distribution network of community-focused organizations. When the communities were unreachable by truck, CNE found helicopters to fly relief to them.
Schools, community centers, and nongovernmental organizations quickly activated volunteers and staff to save lives in the days after the storm. The immediate emergency has passed, but many Puerto Ricans now realize how vulnerable they are. As Juan Jose Gonzalez Colón in Salinas considered the previous two months of living with his family in one small leaky room without electricity and water, he said: "We never knew how poor we were until Maria."
As I traveled, I heard people say they don't simply want to recover but intend to rethink issues of energy independence, sustainability, and transparent governance. Toward that end, CNE, PECES, and many other nonprofits will continue to provide relief while also pursuing a new mission — rebuilding Puerto Rico as a stronger and more prosperous place.
Lori Waselchuk is a visual artist in Philadelphia who coordinates special projects, community programs, and exhibitions at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. She traveled to Puerto Rico on a commission from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org