Heart Beats Hurricane in Puerto Rico
At KEEN, we all get a week of paid volunteer time – on top of the regular PTO – to dedicate to a cause we’re passionate about. Recently, KEENers Andy Shearer (pictured above on the left) and Katrina Fischer (on right), used their hours to help Puerto Ricans rebuild after Hurricane Maria with one of our disaster relief partners, All Hands and Hearts.
By KEEN Director of Talent Acquisition Andy Shearer
The plane touched down in San Juan at 6 a.m. on Nov. 30. The Ambien began to wane, and I started craving a cup of Puerto Rican coffee. I also started thinking about what might lie ahead.
I had volunteered for a week-long deployment to Puerto Rico through a partnership between our KEEN Effect team (social and environmental justice warriors who are at the heart of KEEN’s culture) and All Hands and Hearts, a nonprofit leader that specializes in natural disaster relief with up to 400 volunteers spread across eight current sites around the world. I was assigned to a small rural pocket of the island, called Yabucoa, where Category 5 Hurricane Maria made landfall two years ago. I was there to help rebuild and repair homes.
I didn’t know what to expect. My Spanish is almost non-existent. My knowledge of Puerto Rican history or geography was vague. I had no personal connection with Puerto Rico whatsoever. I just knew this small island, like many poor nations facing increased weather disasters fueled by climate change was in desperate need of help. I also remember feeling that the US Government assistance post-hurricane seemed centered around getting paper towels to a packed press room.
This was an island whose infrastructure appeared to be held together with duct tape.
I knew that this would be a great way to use my annual volunteer leave, but I didn’t expect that it would be so rich in challenge and reward. Whilst I didn’t know what I was getting into, I felt well-prepared with a fresh pair of Braddock steel toe shoes, thanks to our KEEN Utility product team. I also grew up building homes with my dad in Australia, so I was actually looking forward to getting back onto a worksite, with tools and with long hot days.
I was driven from the airport, through the outskirts of San Juan and into the rural parts of Puerto Rico – my mind was now racing on Puerto Rican coffee – scanning the landscape and seeing giant iguanas sunning themselves in the tree tops of the jungle, as well as collapsed and partially collapsed buildings, cars and trucks overturned and left as a sacrifice to the forest (it has been two years since Maria). This was an island whose infrastructure appeared to be held together with duct tape.
FINDING THE BEAUTY OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT
The driver, Gerardo, asked me why I was here while pointing out that I was much older than the other volunteers who were at camp (sheesh – I’m only 44 – that flight must’ve been really hard on me).
I hadn’t really thought about my “why."
Was it simply, the KEEN volunteer benefit provided the opportunity, and that I was that desperate for a warm break from a Pacific NW winter? Was it just that I was able to help and hoping to pay it forward? I’ve been living in the USA for 13 years now. Most recently, I’ve waited on news from my parents, in Australia, who were evacuated for floods and bushfires and then heard the heart warming stories, of armies of volunteers, showing up with brooms, shovels and hammers to repair, rebuild the communities of strangers in the most affected areas. So, was I here to pay it forward? Perhaps there is a Puerto Rican out there, stuck on the other side of the world, who wished they could return home to help out.
Close. I think I’ve always recognized moments of humanity in life. The little phenoms and moments that most people miss in the hustle. Authentic expressions of raw humanity are beautiful. In this modern age of hashtags, Instagram filters and false narratives on social media, it's harder to find what is real. However, this humanity and the beauty of the human spirit is on show during and after a natural disaster. It's when you really get to see the social fabric that binds us together.
That social fabric appears to be held together by resilience and good will. I wanted to join in this fight. I wanted to be shoulder to shoulder and learn what I could from the strong and proud people of Puerto Rico. I put lots of thought into this concept during the next week.
CONVERGING ON GROUND ZERO
The volunteer base for All Hands and Hearts was previously a small elementary school that 55 volunteers and 20 staff were squeezed into. My orientation to base revealed three mixed-gender dorm rooms with bunk beds squeezed in tight. The doors and windows were open for air flow, creating quite the evening buffet for mosquitoes. The 90% humidity and temps that ranged between 70-90 degrees made small personal electric fans a hot commodity on base. There were just a handful of toilets and showers for the 55 volunteers. We were going to get to know each other really well!! There were quite a few rules to absorb – it felt a little like boarding school, a little like the military (I imagine).
The mornings were a blur, with pump’n tunes to get into the groove, under near-guaranteed crimson sunrises (this place has big and expressive weather patterns). You needed to have had breakfast, made and packed your own lunch and be all booted and hard hatted up by 6:30 each morning. You’d spend 15 mins loading up your truck, and drive or walk to your site for the day. You’d wrap around 3:15 p.m., make your way back to base, rest, eat dinner and get to know your fellow volunteers before you crash and it starts all over again.
As we were all piloting our own metamorphosis, I wondered if resilience is the currency of change.
For the first 3 days, I was assigned to a work crew who were repairing and waterproofing a flat concrete roof that had been leaking quite badly since the hurricane. The owner, Anne Hellecker, was in her 70s and, coincidentally, was the school secretary for the elementary school that was now the volunteer base. She had four buckets on constant rotation catching water in her house. During the hurricane, she lost her entire 2nd floor. It was blown away and never found.
Andy's new Braddock steel-toe work shoes look perfect now.
There are many things that can go wrong with a roof repair I came to learn. Before applying the sealant, you need to remove all debris and dust. You also need things to stay dry during critical phases – something tough to achieve when there is a humidity-fueled storm almost every day. We hand-scraped old sealant, used masonry hammer drills to channel new drainage, pressure washers to help keep things clean and mixed/poured new concrete. The work was slow going under a hot sun. I drank water all day and would never pee.
The final 2 days of the week saw me shift to another roof in a different part of Yabucoa. It was a little further along in its process, we were applying new sealant after some extra focus on removing dust and rubble first. There were a range of jobs. Some people would get into general carpentry to rebuild rooms. Some (like me) were cleaning old sealant off a roof – cleaning or laying down new sealant. Some people would suit up in Tyvex suits and full respirators to scrub away black mold on walls and ceilings of homes that were water damaged.
We formed strong bonds with our crews. We did our site warmup routine together, worked together, talked out our sh*t out together. We were a global group with representation from England, France, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, and Italy, as well as America. We ranged from 18 to 72 — though most folks were in their 20s and quite a few of them had been on other Hands and Hearts deployments.
As I got to know my fellow volunteers, I realized that most of them were in the middle of some sort of transformation, identity crisis or personal journey. There were recent divorcees / there were recent retirees / recent widows / between jobs / between careers / recent graduates or those who are several years into a nomadic life – all looking for a purpose. I thought that it was oddly appropriate that they were drawn to a ground zero environment, when most of us were experiencing our own personal ground zero moment or unexpected blank canvas. As we were all piloting our own metamorphosis, I wondered if resilience is the currency of change.
STAYING ROOTED TO VALUES
Just how much change you can cope with probably has much to do with your resilience. The resilience of Puerto Ricans has been shaped over the years – and I came to learn a few of these forces and influences during my week.
• The poverty rate in Puerto Rico was roughly 50% before Hurricane Maria.
• There were people without access to TV or radio who had no idea they were facing a storm that was the worst in at least 80 years.
• Maria, a category 5 storm, made landfall in Yabucoa, moving at an agonizing 2-3 miles an hour. It stayed rooted to Yabucoa for 3 days – grinding away – removing all vegetation, all the normal landmarks of the area. The hills were brown – there was no greenery.
• Initially, the death toll was officially stated at 64. However, a Harvard study that incorporates related deaths (there was no running water or electricity for 9 months afterwards) put the death toll at over 3,000.
• When the power finally came back on – with a surge – it blew the circuits of all appliances still plugged in. They had the power but had now lost their appliances.
• The community immediately banded together. They shared water and food. They ate together – at homes that were least affected.
• 17 million dollars of aid was embezzled by the Governor of Puerto Rico.
• The Jones Act, a USA law that prevents goods from entering directly into Puerto Rico, actually prevented neighboring countries from providing aid. When this law was mercifully, temporarily suspended, only a meager amount of international aid made it through before the trade wall was back in place.
• The character of Puerto Ricans has been shaped over the years through Dutch and Spanish rule. They were a major slavery hub and became a territory of the USA during the Spanish American war in 1897. Puerto Ricans are survivors; they are incredibly resilient. They don’t need our sympathy – they just need our help.
Miguel, now in his 70s, was the local historian. He lived across the road from my first worksite. His English was excellent, and we formed a close bond immediately. He invited me to his house for beers in the evening, to learn about Puerto Rican history. Through him, I actually got to know several of the locals. I learned how grateful they were for all the help and aid we’d provided.
The locals would cheer us on as we walked to the work sites; many homeowners would cook for their assigned crew; there were scratch games of softball played between locals and AHAH staff; locals would cook dinner every night for the AHAH camp; and we would have rounds of beers paid by these locals with almost nothing to their name.
The gratitude felt good, but it wasn’t necessary. The real work, the real heavy lifting was done by the citizens of Yabucoa. Their heavy lifting was not just "surviving," it was maintaining traditional community values, structures and traditions when everything else had been taken away.
On my 2nd to last night in Yabucoa, I found myself at the laundromat and was talking to one of the locals I met through Miguel. She proudly showed me a photo of a Christmas tree she had decorated in her front room. I thought of all the newly erected Christmas lights in town, strings of bright neon lights distracting your eyes away from the abandoned fridges, collapsed homes and the duct tape and toward something more ethereal. Christmas was one of those traditions of their community that remained unscathed by Maria.
I left Puerto Rico with a newfound zen. My heart was full. I felt like I could rise above anything. My body was sore and tired, but somehow felt stronger. I promised myself I would return to this part of Puerto Rico – and hope to reconnect with the people – and see how Ann Hellicker's roof was holding up.
Andy takes in one last sunset over Yabucoa, reflecting on the path of Maria and the path of recovery.
In 2019, KEEN U.S. employees contributed 5,393 hours of volunteer time toward causes they care about. If you are interested in volunteering with All Hands and Hearts in Puerto Rico, or supporting this program, you can learn more at https://www.allhandsandhearts.org/programs/puerto-rico-hurricane-relief.