By Nick Blasquez, Red Cross Volunteer
Four months after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake shook southwestern Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory continues to experience serious seismic activity – the latest a 4.2 magnitude quake on March 30.
This latest quake hit during a month-long curfew enforced to curb spread of the coronavirus.
The January earthquake left an estimated 7,500 residents displaced. For American Red Cross Senior Engagement Specialist Victoria Donoso, the need for disaster assistance was too urgent to ignore.
It had been over 100 years since Puerto Ricans had experienced an earthquake of this magnitude. Houses made of cement to withstand hurricanes were defenseless against the tremors of a shaking earth.
“In this case, the biggest issue is the fear. People were fearful to go back into their homes, so they lost everything and just had to start again,” Victoria said.
She deployed to San Juan after being requested for the job by name. Her role was three weeks as assistant director of workforce, only one of two trained for disaster assessment and emergency assistance.
On the front lines of the natural disaster, a unique challenge she faced was navigating the waters where Red Cross services met Puerto Rican governance. Sheltering and feeding was being done by the local government, providing services to only 2,000 residents who secured a place within the shelters.
“People that were being counted were only those staying in government shelters, but the reality is there were encampments everywhere with sometimes hundreds of people who had never had anybody come out there to help them, yet.”
The primary role of the American Red Cross during this disaster was supporting the local government shelter efforts, but the undocumented encampments is where help was needed most.
“Working with government agencies, they would notify us, ‘Hey, there’s an encampment of 80 people here. We need to get services to them,’” said Victoria.
She and her team of local volunteers traveled in vans to provide individual disaster care to those most in need. Water for those trapped under debris and so much bug spray to battle swarms of tropical biting insects. She would assess the encampments, reporting back on the condition of those present, especially those disabled and unable to seek shelter without assistance.
Victoria had visited San Juan back in 1995, checking out the most populous, tourist-friendly areas of the city. This time around was different, experiencing the remote and devastated places few Americans will ever see, she was out in the jungle assisting people living in tents among piles of rubble.
Her personal takeaway? The resilience of the Puerto Rican people: always polite, generous, happy, and warm. “Very loving and very welcoming, I think this speaks a lot to the way they are going to handle the recovery process and the way they are going to persevere.”