It is hard to believe two months have passed since we first activated our relief initiative following Hurricane Irma. The intensity and pace that followed our initial activation has been on a scale we have seen only a couple times before — 2010 Haiti earthquake and super typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines in 2013. Logistics following a disaster are always challenging, but logistics following two Category 5 Hurricanes across multiple islands, that have limited logistical support on a good day, is a different animal all together. Despite the challenges and hurdles our breed of Guerrilla Humanitarianism has allowed us to work through, and sometimes around, them to have significant impact. Our teams in Puerto Rico and the neighboring Caribbean islands continue to identify and reach areas that are still in need…
With the large number of organizations that have poured into Puerto Rico, our local team there has been focused on reaching the areas that haven’t been reached and are still in need of access to clean water.
One of the significant recent developments to our initiative there has been a new partner program with Banco Santander. Working with Santander employees, we’ve been able to fully activate the communities of Utuado and Humacao, in the initial stages of the partnership. Regarding Utuado, in addition to the new Santander implementations, we were able to conduct follow up to an earlier small strike we did there (impacting 30 families). The follow up phase, in our opinion, is the most important part of our program. As we’ve seen with our programs all over the world, the multiple follow-up phases we execute, are essential for the training from the initial implementation to take hold. For example, in Utuado, we found that while the majority of our initial systems were being maintained properly there were a few that had nearly stopped working and one that had almost fully clogged. So, we took the time to retrain those households, while ensuring that our enlisted community champions saw what happens when a system isn't maintained properly. This process helps to re-enforce that this is a program not just about a filter.
As the program grows so do our solutions. Beyond the portable 5 gal bucket water filter system, we have begun to implement one of the other key facets of our program – large scale “water-depot” community solutions. For example, last week we implemented cistern systems in the municipality of Villalba. Cistern systems (AKA “water-depots”) have been a great way to provide immediate impact, to a large amount of people, while continuing to assess the long-term needs in those communities. Villalba was a great example of how this process can work. A significant turnout and warm reception for the immediate “water-depot” solution, provided us with a good foundation to scale the program, with more individual and small group size systems, in the next phase of activations. This dual system approach can extend the life of our program by up to 15 years and really make a significant impact in the day to day challenges that exist post disaster.
In addition to bringing Utuado, Villalba, and Humacao online in the last few weeks, we were able activate Punta Santiago and Bajanda. Our initial work in these locations consisted of one community size “water-depot” and 50 new individual home, bucket-systems, that will each serve small clusters of households scattered around the area. We also partnered with a local community center there, who’s main focus is on the local elderly population. Most of this population has been unable to reach our “water- depot” in the center of town, so they are now receiving personal household bucket-systems through the community center. Similarly, in Bajanda, we activated a group at a small church, that were excited to expand the program past the “water-depot” and improve their individual household situation with portable bucket systems. The way the community took ownership of the program, focusing on those who may have a difficult time collecting water from the depot, was instinctive and exactly what we look for in a local community partner.
While the challenges in Puerto Rico sit primarily with the massive scale of need and a lack of clarity of what is actually being accomplished on the ground to meet that need, our work in the neighboring Caribbean islands faces a different scope of challenges. That said, our team leaders there, Brent Lievsay and Ben Bourgeois, are uniquely suited to attack those challenges.
With a strict curfew on ST Croix and very limited transportation from our base in ST Croix to the surrounding islands, Brent and Ben took it on themselves to create a mobile base of operations. Delving into Brent’s experience as a boat Captain, and Ben’s knowledge of the islands, our team raised the skull and crossbones and took to the seas!!
Below is a excerpt from Captain Brent’s log during their voyage from ST Croix through the US and British Virgin Islands all the way to the devastated island of Dominica.
Through our local network here on Croix, we managed to source a solid 50' Beneteau sailboat coined "La Vagabond" (one of the few boats that survived Maria). Although it would be slow going, this was an ideal situation, as we would now be a completely self-sustained unit: transpo, food, shelter, buckets, filters, tanks, supplies and purpose. Two days after sourcing the sailboat we shoved off, armed with three 500 gallon water tanks and 40 buckets. In addition, our team in Puerto Rico, coordinated the delivery of 350 more buckets and filters for us to pick up in Tortola. With our ultimate destination, Dominica, in mind, we provisioned the boat and set sail to our first stop, Jost Van Dyke. With local networks already activated from a previous visit we were able to connect with fellow relief workers, Danny Robert Pickett, Phillip Debeger, and James Yantsch. Working together we were able to construct a 500 gallon rain-catchment system, in the center of the island. Huge thanks to those fellas for the hard work and support!! Especially to Danny who was kind enough to give us a new large chainsaw, extra chains, oil, work gloves, shovel/rake, and bags of toothbrushes, to bring to Dominica. While on JVD we met a lovely woman who has family in Dominica and asked us to deliver a bag of clothes to them.
We loaded up the clothes and newly acquired tools and set sail for Tortola to continue our work there and get our re-supply of filters and buckets from Puerto Rico.
Upon arrival in Road Town (Tortola), we met up with legendary Alex “Woo", from Ground Sea Adventures BVI. Born and raised on Tortola his entire life, Woo is what they call a "belonger" on the island. We couldn't have maneuvered the local logistical realms and customs challenges without him. We take our hats off to Woo who is struggling himself, with the destruction of his house and surf adventure business. He set aside his own struggles and hardships to help us in every way imaginable and continues to do so today. We would have been sitting in port at customs for days if it wasn't for our main man Woo, the "belonger". Big hugs brother!
As we loaded pallets of buckets and filters into every inch of spare space on "La Vagabond”, the 250 nautical miles between us and Dominica set in. We were racing against time to connect with W4W Haiti Country Director, Fritz Pierre Louis, in just three days. Bringing additional filters and the “Fritz Factor”, he would be awaiting our arrival. We sailed through the night, into squalls and thick swells for the next 24 hours, before arriving somewhat exhausted into St. Kitts. It would be the first island we have seen in the past month that was actually unaffected by the hurricane’s and still lush and green. Oddly, you can get used to the baron landscape of a post hurricane disaster area, so seeing an untouched island definitely put things into perspective, and reminded us what we are working towards.
We arrived in Dominica wet and tired, but energized to get to work. However, once we got our feet underneath us the reality sunk in – Dominica had been hit as hard (or harder) than anywhere else we had seen so far. The destruction was catastrophic and we could really feel what Maria had done to the first island on her path. With Fritz there to receive us, we docked our boat and made our way to shore. When we need a seemingly unsolvable problem, solved, we call upon the "Fritz". In Dominica, with such widespread devastation, it was trying to narrow down where to implement first and which local network to trust, in doing so. In true form, Fritz already had a plan of action and a local network ready to go. So the three of us set out the next day to implement our water filter program in the community of Du Blance, with help from the local Rotary Club. Each day, thereafter, we repeated the process in new communities, such as Portsmouth, Savanna Eaille, Bense, and Roseau. In a matter of 4 days we were able to reach some of the hardest hit areas, specifically within the Carib Reserve or Kalinago Territory where we even got to meet with their chief and implement 80 filtration systems to his personal village – impacting an estimated 2,000 people there. In total we implemented close to 450 systems with an estimated impact of 9,000 people on the island.
Now that the media has cooled off and these islands are out of the mainstream news the overall help has decreased and people are trying their best to move on. Let us not forget that these islands are still in dire need of help and are now beginning to see the real effects of water born diseases. Oh, and by the way, we actually found the lovely woman from JVD’s family on Dominica and delivered the bag of clothes with smiles and hugs. As an added bonus, we saw it fitting to give them a filter system too, since they were also among the families who needed it.
We are currently planning our next phase of work throughout the Caribbean, where we will be going back to follow up on work previously done and activate new communities that have come across our radar in the last few weeks. Stay tuned, we're not done yet . . .
With new implementations still happening daily, we’d like to take this opportunity to summarize some of scale and impact this initiative has had, so far. (Please note that we will be sending out a comprehensive impact report around the 6 month mark)