Edwin Rodriguez, a pediatric cardiologist in Puerto Rico, spent the days after Hurricane Maria using carefully rationed gasoline to reach trapped or bedridden patients in damaged buildings. So when a colleague asked him to travel to the Bahamas to help the people hit hardest by Dorian, he had some idea of what to expect.
“We knew there were going to be a lot of people needing prescription medications, medications for colds; people needing tetanus shots; people who got trauma from the debris or from moving things,” said Dr. Rodriguez, who has a private practice in San Juan.
As people in the Bahamas begin to take stock of the devastation on the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama – and find themselves in dire need of everything from clean water to medical care – Puerto Ricans are throwing themselves into response efforts.
They’re offering supplies, donating toward recovery efforts, or even making the difficult journey to the worst-hit islands to offer whatever help they can.
Dr. Rodriguez is no stranger to medical missions. He’s been traveling with aid groups to provide care in South America – including Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Bolivia – since 2001.
But this journey, taken with the aid group Haiti Stands Up, felt especially important. Dr. Rodriguez had seen the widespread devastation after Maria, and he felt he had to act.
“To tell you the truth, nobody….had lived through anything like Maria before,” he said.
Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017 – two years ago today – was the most catastrophic storm to hit the island in nearly a century. It’s estimated that nearly 3 thousand people died during Maria or its aftermath.
The hurricane also caused devastation across the island, destroying or damaging countless buildings, wrecking Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, and causing billions of dollars in damage.
It would be hard to overestimate the toll that Maria has taken on every aspect of Puerto Rican life. Recovery has been slow, and has exacerbated the island’s economic woes as industries suffer and thousands of people – many of them younger adults – depart for the mainland United States.
Driving Around, Coming Together
Although his apartment was comparatively undamaged, Dr. Rodriguez realized the extent of Maria’s devastation after driving to check on relatives.
“I called a couple of friends and said ‘We need to start getting things going to help people here [because] I’m pretty sure there will be a lot of people who will not be able to reach medical care,’” he recalled.
Luis David Rodriguez (no relation to Dr. Rodriguez), a former professional professional baseball player who owned a restaurant in San Juan, was in Florida when Maria hit. “It’s different to see on TV,” he said. “Once you come and see it in person, and see how it affects so many people, and pretty much the whole island,” helping out seemed inevitable.
Rodriguez teamed up with a group of friends to deliver food, water, and supplies all over the island. “Maria definitely united the Puerto Rican people. It brought everyone together,” he said.
And it brought Rodriguez to Direct Relief, where he’s been an essential part of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and was the first person from the organization to reach the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. Rodriguez escorted a large cache of Direct Relief medicines and supplies to the island of Grand Abaco.
Arriving in Marsh Harbour, Grand Abaco’s largest town, he saw even more destruction than he had in Puerto Rico. “I did see a similar look in the faces of the people,” he said. “The suffering is the same, the powerless feeling that there’s nothing you can do.”
But he also encountered the same resilience. “I saw a sense of [people] unifying that I did see in Puerto Rico as well,” he said. People affected by the storm were “giving water, blankets, helping us take patients out of the clinic into helicopters, unloading supplies.”
From Maria to Dorian
A journey in a cruise ship – several companies have been providing free transportation in the Bahamas – brought Dr. Rodriguez to Grand Bahama, where he noticed a similar hustle and bustle. There was only one problem.
Aid groups and the local hospital were providing on-the-ground care, but “our major concern is that, of course they’re helping a lot of people, but those they are helping are those who can come to their headquarters,” he said.
“Those who cannot walk…cannot get any food, any water, supplies, or medical care.”
Dr. Rodriguez and his colleagues went street by street through the island’s villages, treating people too unwell or immobile to travel to one of the clinics. “The first day that I went through the streets, just in one street I found five people who were bedridden,” he said.
One patient, an elderly lady caring for an intellectually disabled daughter, had no way to reach the aid that was on offer – and no one who could bring her water or food.
The team treated dehydration, scratches and wounds, and other injuries. They gave medications to patients with chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure – many of whom had gone days without the vital medications needed to manage their conditions.
Many of the people Dr. Rodriguez met had clearly undergone trauma, he said. They complained of panic attacks, of insomnia. They were afraid to fall asleep, in case they dreamed about being underwater again. And because there were reports of another storm on the horizon – Hurricane Humberto, which ultimately bypassed the Bahamas – many were actively afraid.
“I saw a kid who was taller than me, and I cried with that kid,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “He was telling me he was afraid that something like that was going to happen again.”
Living in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria, Rodriguez said, helped him connect with the people on Grand Abaco – and offer them some hope.
“I definitely felt that I could relate to what they were going through,” he said. When Bahamians heard he was from Puerto Rico, he explained, they knew he understood their concerns and fears. “I’d tell them, ‘We’re still recovering in Puerto Rico, but it’s definitely something that will get done.’”
For Dr. Rodriguez, that trip to the Bahamas was only a beginning. “We’re planning on doing more visits. We’re already starting to collect supplies for our next mission,” he said. “When we got to see the people…[I realized] we needed to come here.”
And he’s anticipating a future in which hurricane relief isn’t just a single calamitous event at home, or an unusual trip to a faraway island. Instead, he says, it will be a bigger and bigger part of his life: “The hurricanes are worse. The hurricanes are more potent. Disasters are happening all over the world.”
But he said he’s happy to step up. “The best part of life is being in a position where I can do it,” he said. Whether the disaster is Maria, Dorian, or some future, unknown calamity, “Just by you being there…they understand that somebody actually cares about them. That somebody has concern for their well-being.”