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Home | Tag Archives: puerto rico

Tag Archives: puerto rico

NMSU Professor Shares Initial Results of Study on Hurricane Maria Victims in Puerto Rico

Nearly a year to the day Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, devastating the U.S. commonwealth and its people, a New Mexico State University assistant professor shared some of the preliminary findings of her study on the mental health of aid workers who are still working to help residents.

Ivelisse Torres Fernandez, an assistant professor in the Counseling and Educational Psychology department at New Mexico State University’s College of Education, is a native of Puerto Rico. Shortly after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico,

Torres Fernandez began fundraising efforts to help Puerto Ricans in need of food, water, batteries and other goods. She also began a yearlong study in March focusing on the mental health of those who not only provided aid to storm victims, but who were also victims of Hurricane Maria.

“I started to collect data and it was hard to do, because there was not going to be a perfect time to do it. The emotions are still raw,” Torres Fernandez said. “The emotional wounds this horrible storm left are intense.”

Hurricane Maria was a Category 4 storm when it hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. It is regarded as the worst Atlantic hurricane since 2004, and on August 28 Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello raised the U.S. territory’s official death toll from 64 to 2,975 after an independent study, according to the Associated Press.

Torres Fernandez made her third trip to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria in July, and said although she is seeing progress, it has been ‘painfully slow.’ So far, Torres Fernandez has completed her first round of interviews, talking to 15 people including first responders, healthcare workers, community leaders and private citizens who have assisted in relief efforts. Out of the 15, 10 have been women. The first group ranged in age from 18 to 71.

Torres Fernandez is planning to conduct a second round of interviews, mainly with mental health professionals.

“I’m asking them what it was like to have been impacted by the storm and having to provide emotional support and psychological help to others. How did they cope,” Torres Fernandez said.

One surprising thing she learned was that in helping others, aid workers healed themselves. By providing support and assistance to those who are still experiencing depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and post-traumautic stress disorder, it has helped them cope and find some relief.

“On a personal level, that’s how I’ve been healing,” said Torres Fernandez. She was not in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria but her family, who still live on the island, experienced the storm and its after-effects. Torres Fernandez said residents are still suffering from anxiety whenever it rains, and anxiety has been heightened during this year’s hurricane season.

New Mexico State University assistant professor Ivelisse Torres Fernandez, right, delivered donations to an assisted living facility in Puerto Rico in July. (NMSU photo courtesy of Ivelisse Torres Fernandez)

Torres Fernandez said that by talking to mental health professionals next, she hopes to take a closer look at whether they are experiencing compassion fatigue and whether they have adopted any self care strategies to help them cope. She also wants to explore other consequences of the hurricane such as health issues that occurred after residents were forced to rely on canned food for survival, and the limited access to quality health care.

In talking to her first group of interviewees, Torres Fernandez found that although aid workers were emotionally impacted by the experience, adopting a positive outlook has helped them through tough, emotional times.

One woman told me, “We are broken, but we are not defeated. We will rise again,” Torres Fernandez said, her eyes welling with tears. “This speaks to the resilience of the people of Puerto Rico. Keeping a positive outlook on life makes a difference.”

Participants also raised concerns about the federal aid response versus the local response. Although participants positively rated the response at the municipal level, the majority of participants believe both the federal and local government didn’t do a good job, Torres Fernandez said.

The concerns about the federal and local response has led residents to distrust federal and local agencies, and to adopt more significant hurricane preparation measures such as storing enough food and water to last two months, and to buy significant amounts of batteries and power generators.

Before starting her research, Torres Fernandez spearheaded donation efforts to collect clothing, food, batteries, school supplies and money to benefit Puerto Rico.

To date, those donations have helped students in three schools and the residents of an assisted living facility, along with several residents in rural areas.

Author: Adriana M. Chavez- NMSU

Ivelisse Torres Fernandez, an assistant professor at New Mexico State University, eats lunch with a group of students in Puerto Rico after delivering donations of school supplies. Torres Fernandez, a native of Puerto Rico, is researching the mental health of aid workers who helped Puerto Rican residents during Hurricane Maria in September 2017. (NMSU photo courtesy of Ivelisse Torres Fernandez)

UTEP, NMSU Collaborate in Effort to Rebuild Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria

Ivonne Santiago, Ph.D., knows firsthand the difficulties of rebuilding homes and lives in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

The clinical professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at The University of Texas at El Paso was 10 years old when a hurricane ravaged her family’s home in Puerto Rico. As the storm beared down on the island, the house filled with muddy water. All the family could do was wait. When the hurricane finally passed, the family assessed the damage done to their modest concrete home.

As they began the cleanup process, they realized everything was lost, Santiago said.

Those feelings of despair surfaced again in September 2017 as Santiago watched news reports of Hurricane Maria – a Category 4 storm – barrel through Puerto Rico.

“I couldn’t sleep; I was worried about my family and my father who has Alzheimer’s,” Santiago said. “Immediately after the hurricane had passed, I knew it would take a long time to recover.”

She was right. Since then, Maria has been regarded as the worst natural disaster on record in Dominica and Puerto Rico. The storm left the island without electricity and clean water. More than 3 million U.S. citizens were left in the dark and thirsty, including Santiago’s family.

Familiar with the pain Maria has heaped on her home state, Santiago has sought ways to help. She is overseeing Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), a UTEP student organization, as it partners with New Mexico State University’s Aggies Without Limits (AWL) in an effort to help rebuild the devastated island.

Upon hearing the island’s citizens didn’t have clean water, Santiago set up a GoFundMe account. Eventually, the donations reached $10,000. With that money, Santiago purchased filters to remove impurities from water to make it potable.

There was just one problem. Santiago was unsure how to deliver the filters to people in Puerto Rico. Luckily, she found two local Boy Scout Troops in need of Eagle Scout projects who were able to distribute the filters in the municipalities of Guayanilla, Mayaguez, Utuado, Orocovis and Ponce. In all, almost 1,000 filters were distributed, but that was only the beginning of the civil engagement Santiago had started.

In January, Santiago saw the devastation for herself during a visit to Puerto Rico. She knew more work was needed in order to help the community.

While discussing the water purification project with Puerto Rican government leaders and residents, Santiago found two additional opportunities to lend assistance.

She was asked to help design and build a suspension bridge that had been washed away in the city of Utuado. She also was approached by a colleague who works for an international nonprofit to provide solar energy to a small town of 23 homes that remains without electricity.

Santiago sought help from her NMSU colleagues Professor Kenny Stevens and Sonya Cooper, Ph.D., academic dean of NMSU’s Department of Engineering Technology and Surveying Engineering. The trio spearheaded the two projects as not solely a relief effort, but also as a chance for a service-learning project with students from both NMSU and UTEP.

For these projects, students worked with licensed engineers and contractors from Puerto Rico, as well as professors from both universities to leave an impact on the region. Together, students from AWL and ESW spent their respective spring breaks gathering equipment and resources, and creating a plan of execution to rebuild the suspension bridge and provide solar energy to the two communities affected by Hurricane Maria in the municipality of Utuado.

One such student is Miguel Fraga, the vice president for ESW and a senior in UTEP’s Engineering Leadership program. Fraga said he is working to gather 20 students from UTEP that will be able to volunteer their time and help facilitate these projects in late May and early June.

“This project will not only benefit students, but it will also help people from Puerto Rico meet their basic human needs,” said Fraga, who is also working on fundraising. “We will be able to provide families on the island with a stress-free life and access to clean water and electricity. This is why I believe in this project. People now more than ever are learning to live without anything when they only had very little to begin with.”

Author:  Matthew Euzarraga – UTEP College of Engineering

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