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Six Months After Hurricane Maria, Recovery Continues in Puerto Rico

Since the storm made landfall in Sept. 2017, Direct Relief has shipped more than $62 million in medical aid to the health centers and hospitals on the island.


Hurricane Maria

Puerto Rico’s flag waves high over the community of Orocovis. (Tony Morain, Direct Relief)

This coming week, the world will remember how tragedy struck Puerto Rico six months ago.

Hurricane Maria churned a devastating path through the Caribbean last September.

The Category 4 storm brought sustained winds of 175 miles per hour, destroying homes, mangling power lines and severing communications throughout Puerto Rico.

As images began to emerge, they revealed the destruction left in Maria’s wake, signaling the protracted recovery to come.

A bridge connecting Utuado to outside roads is seen in the bottom right corner of the frame, washed away by recent rains. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)
A bridge connecting Utuado to outside roads is seen in the bottom right corner of the frame, washed away by recent rains. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

Immediate Response

Direct Relief immediately began assessing the needs of health center partners in Puerto Rico.

Thousands of people had been injured and displaced, and still-functional hospitals and clinics had limited or no power.

Even without power, many health centers continued serving their patients. Some even remained open through the storm, despite the risks, with staff concerned only for their patients’ well-being.

Mobilizing Medical Resources

While there was an increased need for health services, the ability to provide such care was seriously limited. With power scarce and supply lines cut, medical inventories were diminishing rapidly.

Direct Relief began fielding urgent requests for medical supplies, including from the University Pediatric Hospital in San Juan. Doctors there needed a specialized medication to treat children with hemophilia.

Hours before the supply of the drug ran out, Direct Relief staff arrived at the hospital with doses of Factor VIII and IX, drugs that aid clotting in people with hemophilia.

Urgently Needed Hemophilia Treatment Drugs Delivered to Puerto Rico Pediatric Hospital

Supply disruptions continued to pose a challenge Puerto Rico’s health systems months into the recovery, and insulin was one of the most needed items. Puerto Rico has the highest rate of diabetes in the U.S., with 14.7 percent of the population diagnosed with the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Insulin Reaches Clinics, Patients Navigating Post-Storm Life

Nestled in blue cold storage containers and between cold packs preserving a stable temperature from the humid San Juan air, precious vials of insulin were transported across the city Wednesday. As the transport unfolded, winds whipped up palm trees still ragged from Hurricane Maria’s winds three weeks ago, and a rainstorm earlier in the day brought sheets of water so constant that it was difficult to see.

Direct Relief began shipping insulin to public health agencies in Puerto Rico that could store the medicines inside generator-powered refrigerators. The insulin delivered by Direct Relief was distributed to patients through local health center staff, including some who carried insulin supplies to people stranded in their homes.

By Air, Medicine and Supplies Reach the Island

Medicines bound for the island of Vieques, about 10 miles east of Puerto Rico, are loaded into a helicopter on Dec. 19. The medicines were part of a larger 40-ton shipment bound for more than 20 health centers and hospitals across Puerto Rico. (Photo by Donnie Hedden for Direct Relief)
Medicines bound for the island of Vieques, about 10 miles east of Puerto Rico, are loaded into a helicopter on Dec. 19. The medicines were part of a larger 40-ton shipment bound for more than 20 health centers and hospitals across Puerto Rico. (Photo by Donnie Hedden for Direct Relief)

As soon as supply channels started opening, Direct Relief began mobilizing large infusions of medical aid.

This involved several major humanitarian airlifts, including a chartered DC-11 plane that transported 76 tons of medicine and medical supplies in October 2017.

Days before Christmas, a second airlift brought 40 tons of medicines, worth $20.6 million in value, to healthcare facilities caring for the island’s most vulnerable.

76-Ton Airlift of Medicine and Medical Supplies Lands in Puerto Rico  

Reaching Patients Beyond Hospital Walls

While Direct Relief was coordinating large-scale deliveries of medicine and supplies to Puerto Rico, local medical personnel were also equipped with Emergency Health Kits.

The kits, which were built for rapid deployment, contained essential emergency medicines and supplies most needed in emergency situations. Dozens of medical teams fanned out across the island to provide care in high-need areas.

CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta Delivers Direct Relief Medicines to Puerto Rico Hospital

Medical Aid, by the Numbers

Over the past six months, Direct Relief has continued to support local health centers and hospitals, providing more than $62.6 million in requested medication and supplies.

This assistance totals 226.8 tons and 8.1 million defined daily doses of medication. Through 265 emergency shipments, this medical aid went to 60 healthcare facilities in Puerto Rico.

Long-Term Response

Major emergencies often require substantial repairs to infrastructure, and this need is particularly acute within the health sector.

Six months later, as thousands of people remain without power and other basic services, the recovery is far from over. And Direct Relief continues to respond, supporting health centers and communities as they repair the damage caused by Hurricane Maria and rebuild in a way that withstands future hurricanes.

To help sustain and bolster local health and safety-net providers in Puerto Rico, Direct Relief is working to identify, vet and support locally-run organizations with cash grants.

Most recently, Direct Relief sponsored a sweeping vaccination campaign in Puerto Rico, where more than 9,400 people received flu shots across the island. The event was made possible through financial support to the Puerto Rico Coalition of Vaccination and Prevention, known as VOCES. The vaccines, donated by Sanofi, were used to immunize people in more than 50 locations across the island.

Puerto Rico Launches Largest Single-Day Public Health Campaign Since Hurricane Maria

The massive vaccination campaign was a priority of Puerto Rico’s Department of Health, since vaccinations had waned in the weeks following Hurricane Maria.

Looking Forward

Hurricane Maria devastated countless lives and communities across the island, revealing high rates of poverty and inequality that existed long before the storm ever hit shore.

It demonstrated something else, too – that even a hurricane as powerful as Maria can’t fade Puerto Rico’s beauty and the resilience of its people, who’ve worked tirelessly these past months, often without power, to rebuild their island.

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