On Tuesday, two days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico — which knocked out most of the island’s electricity, restricted access to drinking water and displaced people from their homes — a team from the Jewish humanitarian aid group Cadena landed in the disaster area and got jobs .
For Cadena, a Mexico-based nonprofit, it was important to mobilize as soon as possible rather than wait for the government’s response — a lesson the group learned from the government’s delayed response during Hurricane Maria five years ago has learned. At the time, Cadena was dealing with a crisis in the area after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Oaxaca, Mexico, but still sent a shipment of 100 tons of relief supplies, including gasoline and generators, to Puerto Rico.
This week, Cadena, which aims to work with those directly affected, dispatched five aid workers to the island, who have been trained in humanitarian and survival skills, following an initial assessment to determine the precise needs of the population. To meet immediate needs for clean water and electricity, the team carries 500 water filters – each can purify 800 liters of water per day – and hundreds of solar lamps. The team also hopes to help people in crisis tap into their own resilience.
“The most important thing is to get there as soon as possible and to secure people’s way of life,” said Benjamin Laniado, secretary general of Cadena eJewishPhilanthropy. “And then they have the option to wait. But to wait in safety, with protection …. You must live with dignity.”
Cadena is one of the few Jewish groups to have sent aid workers or supplies to Puerto Rico — and is trying to learn lessons from past emergencies to ensure a more effective response this time.
A Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Team from the United Hatzalah Ambulance Service is due to arrive on the island today to provide “psychological first aid,” Raphael Poch, paramedic and spokesman for the group, told eJP. Poch said this unit was formed in 2016 after Hatzalah saw people traumatized after seeing a Hatzalah paramedic being hit by a car.
“If someone is traumatized from seeing a car crash where the person who was hit gets up and walks away, how much more traumatized are they from actual serious trauma, either suffered by themselves, their family members, loved ones, or witnessed by themselves something like a terrorist attack?” he asked.
Hatzalah then trained mental health professionals to take her therapy practice into practice and adapt it to traumatic situations where, instead of a regular hourly session, she might spend five to 10 minutes with a person. Poch said Hatzalah’s goal is to help a person through the immediate trauma they are facing to prevent an acute stress reaction from turning into PTSD. This is done through group and one-on-one debriefings, where the group brings participants’ attention back to the control they have.
Hatzalah has served on seven international missions since 2016, including assisting with Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey in the US Gulf Coast in 2017, and has trained teams to deliver psychological trauma support in locations from New York to Johannesburg.
“Even if it’s something very, very small, if they can help their own child or if they can help their neighbor with something, it will give them a sense of control that they can then exercise again in their lives,” Poch told the survivors Catastrophe. “And that will go well with giving a greater sense of control and then getting the person back on their feet.”
Hatzalah’s team of four psychotrauma experts and two logisticians expect to go to places in Puerto Rico they’ve been told need significant help — like the cities of Ponce, Guayama and Guanica, though that plan is subject to change , once the team assesses local needs. Your efforts will focus on people whose homes were destroyed and who are now living in shelters. The Hatzalah team includes paramedics who can provide medical assistance and then refer people to local service providers.
A key need highlighted during the group’s work on Hurricane Harvey was to also support the rescuers and relief teams themselves and provide them with “psychological stabilization” so they can continue their work.
“People were really working all day trying to pull people out,” Poch said of the group’s 2017 work on the Texas coast. “And then [they] were broken at the end of the day. So we reinforce[ed] them back.”
Israeli disaster relief group SmartAid, which provides humanitarian assistance through technological tools, said in a statement that it will work with local partners to provide internet access in Puerto Rico and to purchase and distribute power banks, solar generators and clean water units. The organization hopes to raise $50,000 for this work.
Hurricane Fiona came at a time when Jewish groups — including Cadena, Hatzalah, SmartAid, and others — were active in Ukraine’s refugee crisis, prompting a robust Jewish response. The Jewish Federations of North America, which told eJP they are in contact with partners in Puerto Rico to see how to respond, added that timing just days before the High Holidays poses an additional challenge.
Dyonna Ginsburg, CEO of Olam, a network of more than 65 Jewish and Israeli organizations working to help vulnerable populations worldwide, told eJP that “humanitarian aid agencies must weigh many factors before deciding when and where to respond.” . These include the ability of local authorities and civil society to respond to the needs of survivors and their openness to outside support; the extent to which organizations already have local partners in the field; and their ability to also provide support for long-term recovery — as well as funding capacity.
Ginsburg is confident the Jewish community will keep moving forward in humanitarian crises, but worries about what will happen weeks or months later.
“My main concern is how to maintain our commitment to meeting long-term needs when a crisis is no longer in the headlines, and how to open people’s hearts to crises of significant proportions that are not really covered in the media . for example Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan etc.,” she said.
In addition to his work in Latin America and the Caribbean, Cadena has helped more than 8,000 families relocate from Ukraine to Spain, providing housing, education and health care. Laniado believes there are enough resources in the private sector to help everyone in several global crises.
“People suffer and we don’t have to judge who suffers more,” he said. “Any crisis, event or threat… we must treat it as a unique event. And that’s why we have a lot of assignments right now.”