A group of nearly 20 Bay Area nurses who flew to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria found that they were often the first to reach Americans in desperate need of basic necessities — several weeks after the storm made impact.
The total group of 50 nurses with the Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN), of Oakland’s National Nurses United, went to offer medical help in Puerto Rico but quickly turned their visit into a broad humanitarian mission and returned last week.
Nurses drove in minivans of supplies all over the island to find that the biggest immediate need was water, then food and shelter. In addition to medical supplies, the nurses handed out what food they could, even giving away their own lunches or spending their own money to buy what they could, says Kaiser Permanente nurse Ruth Somera.
UCSF nurse Erin Carrera in Puerto Rico (Courtesy photo)
Now, some of the RNRN group is headed to Washington, D.C. to join Democratic legislators like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill Thursday to share what they saw during their two-week trip — and, to warn of deep worry over a looming health crisis from islanders forced to drink contaminated water.
Somera, a Puerto Rican nurse at Kaiser Permanente in Manteca, went on both trips and says they realized within three days of their mission that they had become first responders. Though some were able to relieve some other medical personnel who had worked tirelessly and put aside any chaos inflicted on their lives, they found that people still weren’t able to even make it to the hospitals.
Many of the medical issues stemmed from a lack of medicine to treat chronic conditions like blood pressure and diabetes, while those with mental health conditions were also left without crucial medication. The few pharmacies that were open often charged full price because they either couldn’t access the system to confirm insurance coverage, patients already used up refills or just didn’t have insurance, says UCSF nurse Erin Carrera.
With homes still soaked from the storm, mold has grown and created a risk for respiratory problems, especially for those dependent on electric oxygen machines. Part of the recalibrated mission involved teaching people they met how to purify water and rid houses of mold.
It took six days for Somera to hear from her family of about 20 relatives. Her two elderly sisters are now staying with family on the U.S. mainland until things stabilize.
“I called every soul that I could before [Maria] hit,” Somera says. “All I could think was that this island is a poor island, they’re Americans, and they’re going to need help.”
Kaiser Permanente nurse Ruth Somera points to her hometown on a map of locations in Puerto Rico that nurses responded to after Hurricane Maria. (Courtesy photo)
The nurses themselves stayed in the San Juan Coliseum, with a generator for lights, running water and access to food that countless others on the island didn’t have.
“Our conditions were luxurious compared to the people we were serving every day,” Carrera says.
Carrera and others set up a clinic near some Federal Emergency Management Administration officials in Rio Grande, but found that people they treated gave snack bags of junk food, small water bottles, and paperwork. Thousands managed to hear FEMA was coming and lined up — some 10 hours the night before or after walking for six hours— exposed in the direct sun with babies and the elderly, Carrera says.
When Carrera went to the local FEMA director and asked why, she says he tearfully answered that FEMA wouldn’t release supplies until they collect data, return it to the main office, input the information and make their way back.
“It’s heartbreaking to imagine that the U.S. government is not taking care of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico,” Carrera says. “They’ve been through an unimaginable crisis.”
(Photo courtesy of Ruth Somera)
Crisis spurs resourcefulness, but the water that Puerto Ricans accessed with bamboo and PVC pipes comes from areas that may have major rat infestations or dead animals in the supply. Already, cases of leptospirosis, a water-borne illness that takes about a month to incubate and turn into serious complications, are increasing on the island.
Within a week of returning, Carrera launched a GoFundMe that exceeded its $5,000 goal to send Sawyer Water Filters to Puerto Rico, rather than relying on distributed water bottles or contaminated sources. Union leaders there will transport and install about 200 filters, which can provide up to 500 gallons of water each day for years, to the hardest hit areas.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed a $36.5 billion package to relief from the multiple hurricanes and wildfires. Still, it’s unclear if people RNRN reached will get the immediate assistance they desperately need.
“We were just scratching the surface,” Somera says. “We came home with heavy hearts because we know that they’re in trouble.”