Over mid-winter break, a group of 21 GDS students traveled to Puerto Rico to help those still struggling to rebuild their lives five months after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. While we were fixing houses in Toa Baja, a town on the northern coast, one of the memorable people we met was Ernesto. Ernesto’s house had been destroyed by the water that rose to the second floor and lost one of his dogs in the flooding. “There was mold everywhere, roaches behind every piece of fallen debris, and everything was completely destroyed,” said junior Alex Wellisch of the house. Ernesto was hesitant to allow strangers to go through his personal belongings. He had built his dream home with his wife and it had been destroyed in the hurricane. His wife and children fled to a nearby town to avoid the trauma of seeing their home destroyed, and Ernesto was determined to fix it again. “At first, there were so many things Ernesto didn’t want us to take because he was having a very hard time letting go of memories and his life essentially,” said freshman Alani Cox-Cáceres, who has family in Puerto Rico. “But in the end, I think he had a sense of trust in us and let us take more out of the house. I think that moment was very important for him and necessary for him to move on,” Cox-Cáceres continued. Throughout the course of the trip, we met many people like Ernesto who are still without food, water, and a home.
This past September, Hurricane Maria became known as the worst natural disaster on record in Dominica and Puerto Rico. For many weeks after the hurricane, most of Puerto Rico’s population suffered from flooding and a severe lack of resources. The slow relief process has exacerbated the catastrophic damage and left many without food, electricity, water, and a home even months after the disaster. Maria’s damage is estimated to be upwards of $91.61 billion, mostly from the damage in Puerto Rico, making Hurricane Maria the third-costliest tropical cyclone on record.
When we arrived at our hostel in San Juan, we stopped at Home Depot to gather masks, brooms, trash bags, shovels, and gloves. On our first night, we met with DC-based Chef José Andrés, who has been serving food to millions of hungry people in Puerto Rico since Maria first happened. In fact, just recently, Andrés was named Humanitarian of the Year by the James Beard Foundation following his relief efforts through his culinary skills. While Andrés offered GDS students sliders, cheeseballs, beef, chicken, pita and salad from his food trucks, he told us about his work in Puerto Rico and how he combined his talent of cooking to help those without food. “In life, you can have your steps all planned out. When faced with a challenge, take action. Otherwise, life will just pass you by,” said Andrés.
The second day, we traveled to Toa Baja. There, we helped clean houses that had been destroyed by the hurricane. We gathered piles of clothes, furniture, and pictures that had been buried beneath the feet of rainwater. As I was going through the house, I found a woman’s birth certificate, driver’s license and credit card that were still sopping wet. The roof had been ripped off of her house, however, she did not qualify for any assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“Within the houses, almost nothing was salvageable. We were throwing away people’s lives and it was truly heartbreaking,” describes Cox-Cáceres. “The amount of trees that were bare was incredible because I could see parts of the island that hadn’t been visible before because of all the green from the trees.”
Catherine Pearson, a chaperone on the trip, said she was most struck by the small reminders of daily life that had withstood the wind and floods in the midst of all the destruction in the community of Toa Baja. “I observed car keys hanging on a hook in a kitchen that had lost the roof and windows and a dog leash that had been stashed after a walk in a home that had been flooded up to the 2nd floor,” noted Pearson. “So many homes were destroyed beyond repair and most of the belongings were unrecognizable so it was surreal to see some items that looked untouched in the midst of the chaos.”
Sophomore Duncan Edwards said cleaning out the houses was his favorite part of the entire trip. “It was very emotionally powerful because I got to see the effects of the hurricane firsthand and the little amounts of aid that Puerto Rico has received,” said Edwards. “It was good to meet the people living in the house and I learned a lot talking with two young boys on how the hurricane affected them.”
Cox-Cáceres agreed, saying her favorite memory was when the group broke out into an impromptu game of soccer with two little boys in the street. “I think it was the first defining moment on the trip of us as a family,” said Cox-Cáceres. “We’ve all really grown together and that moment displayed the love amongst the group.”
Senior Sam Blumenfeld also enjoyed playing soccer in the street. “We were all laughing and having a great time, and the local kids also seemed to love it, which was even more satisfying.”
Along the way, we encountered people who were at different stages of grieving. Many members of the community banded together to help their neighbors and were outside every day going from house to house to lend a hand. “While we were cleaning out a house, there was a young girl watching us,” said Blumenfeld. “She literally watched us throw away her entire life’s belongings.” Young children helped us go through their old bedrooms, watching as we moved their moldy beds and toys into trash piles.
Another day, we traveled into the rainforest to a goat farm run by a woman named Norysell. Norysell moved into the rainforest to live a simple lifestyle with her daughter and animals. We helped her sift dirt, hoe the ground, pot plants, and move branches. Sophomore Celia Montes-Sharp loved working on the farm and helping Norysell. “My favorite memory was getting to see the smile on Norysell’s face after all the work we did and how she was so happy to tell us her story.”
Next, we traveled to World Central Kitchen and assembled 5,000 ham and mayonnaise sandwiches in three hours. At first, we were surprised by how much mayonnaise we had to put on a sandwich, but we were later told that we had to put more mayonnaise than usual because it was a good source of calories and many people eating these sandwiches would not have another meal to eat. “I loved seeing our kids, to the astonishment of the folks at World Central Kitchen, make more than 4,800 sandwiches, when they had estimated we might make 2,000,” said PLP head Bobby Asher. “To hear that we were the most prolific sandwich-makers they’d ever seen, over 150 days, was extraordinary.”
Asher believes that the coolest part of the trip was how so much of our agenda was a product of GDS connections. “Whether it was current parents, former students, or friends of friends of friends, everything we did was somehow linked to someone in our community,” said Asher. The lesson that we try to teach to all our Peer Leaders is that it’s all about human connections. It was all about our relationships, ones that were all formed through our experiences at GDS.”
One of the biggest lessons we learned from our trip was the importance of a sense of community. Asher hopes that this lesson will translate back to the GDS community. “We owe it to ourselves that we take all that we learned and all that we experienced and make sure that we do all we can to work toward helping others in need,” said Asher.
Now that we have arrived back in D.C., the PLPs do not plan on stopping what they started. Wellisch hopes to continue to raise money for Puerto Rico and other countries affected by the hurricane. “I think that it’s important to remember that Puerto Rico is one of many countries that has been recently affected by a natural disaster. Texas was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey, the Dominican Republic was devastated by Hurricane Maria and the list goes on and on,” said Wellisch. “My point here is that there is a lot of work to be done, not just in Puerto Rico, but in any country that has been affected by natural disasters.”
Cox-Cáceres agreed and wants to have more bake sales, assemblies and PLPs meetings that focus on helping the victims of the hurricane. She wants to stay in touch with the people we met and see how they are doing. “I think it would be amazing for us to somehow find a way to go back because even though we did a large amount of work, there’s still so much more we could do and we can’t leave a job unfinished.” As we return to our lives in D.C. and at GDS, it is important to remember our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and continue what we started.
By Annalise Myre ’19