Tuesday, two days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico – Knock on the door the bulk of the island’s electricity, limiting access to clean water and driving people from their homes — a team from the Jewish aid group Cadena landed in the disaster area and set out at work.
For Cadena, a non-profit organization based in Mexico, it was important to mobilize as soon as possible instead of waiting for the government to respond – a lesson the group learned from seeing the late government response during Hurricane Maria five years earlier. At that time, Cadena was facing a crisis closer to home after a magnitude of 7.2 earthquake in Oaxaca, Mexico, but still sent a 100-ton shipment of supplies, including gasoline and generators, to Puerto Rico.
This week, after carrying out an initial assessment to assess the precise needs of the population, Cadena, which aims to work in cooperation with those who have been directly affected, sent five aid workers to the island who are trained in humanitarian skills and of survival. To meet immediate drinking water and electricity needs, the team carries 500 water filters – each capable of cleaning 800 liters of water per day – and hundreds of solar lamps. The team also hopes to help people in crisis tap into their own resilience.
“The most important thing is to be there as soon as possible and to secure people’s way of life,” said Benjamin Laniado, general secretary of Cadena. eJewishPhilanthropy. “And then they have the capacity to wait. But to wait in safety, with protection… they have to live with dignity.
Cadena means “chain” in Spanish, and was chosen as the group’s name because “to do a humanitarian mission, you need a chain of alliances…from philanthropy to volunteers to the office, everything is a chain” , said Laniado. A chain of helping people is also needed when providing disaster relief, he added.
Cadena is one of the few Jewish groups that has sent aid workers or supplies to Puerto Rico — and is trying to apply lessons from past emergencies to ensure a more effective response this time around.
A psychotrauma and crisis response team from the United Hatzalah Emergency Medical Service is expected to arrive on the island today to provide “psychological first aid”, said Raphael Poch, an EMT and spokesperson for the group, at eJP. Poch said the unit was created in 2016 after Hatzalah saw how traumatized people were after seeing a Hatzalah EMT being hit by a car.
“If someone is traumatized by seeing a car accident where the person who was hit gets up and walks away, how much more traumatized is he or she by real serious trauma that happens to them, to family members, to close people or if she witnessed something like a terrorist attack?” He asked.
Hatzalah then trained mental health professionals to deploy their therapeutic practice on the ground, adapting it to traumatic situations where they might have five to 10 minutes with a person instead of a regular hourly session. Poch said the purpose of Hatzalah is to help a person work through the immediate trauma they are facing, in order to prevent an acute stress reaction from developing into PTSD. This is done through group and individual debriefing sessions where the group refocuses people’s attention on the control they have.
Hatzalah has participated in seven international missions since 2016, including Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey on the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2017, and trained teams to provide psychotrauma support in locations ranging from New York in Johannesburg.
“Even if it’s something very, very small like, can they help their own child, or can they help their neighbor with something, it will give them a sense of control that they can then exercise again in their lives. “, Poch said of survivors of the disaster. “And that will help a lot with a greater sense of control and then getting the person back on their feet.”
Hatzalah’s team, made up of four psychotraumatology professionals and two logistics officers, plans to travel to places in Puerto Rico that they have been told need substantial help – such as cities de Ponce, Guayama and Guanica, although this plan may change once the team assesses the needs on the ground. Their efforts will be focused on people whose homes have been destroyed and who are now living in shelters. The Hatzalah team includes paramedics who can provide medical assistance and then refer people to local service providers.
A significant need highlighted during the group’s work during Hurricane Harvey was also to provide support to the rescuers and relief teams themselves, providing “psychological stabilization” to continue doing their jobs.
“People were really working all day trying to get people out,” Poch said of the band’s 2017 work on the Texas coast. “So what [they] were broken at the end of the day. So we boost[ed] let them back down.
Israeli disaster-response group SmartAid, which provides humanitarian aid through technological tools, said in a statement that it will work with local partners to provide internet access in Puerto Rico, and purchase and distribute power banks, solar generators and drinking water units. The organization hopes to raise $50,000 for this work.
Hurricane Fiona came at a time when Jewish groups — including Cadena, Hatzalah, SmartAid and others — have been active in the Ukrainian refugee crisis, which has prompted a vigorous Jewish response. The Jewish Federations of North America, which told eJP they are in contact with partners in Puerto Rico to see how they can respond, added that the timing a few days before the major holiday adds an additional challenge.
Dyonna Ginsburg, CEO of Olam, a network of more than 65 Jewish and Israeli organizations working to serve vulnerable populations around the world, told eJP that “humanitarian aid organizations must weigh many factors before determining when and where to answer”. This includes the capacity of local authorities and civil society to respond to the needs of survivors and their openness to external support; the extent to which organizations already have local partners on the ground; and their ability to also provide long-term recovery support – as well as financing capacity.
Ginsburg is confident that the Jewish community will continue to mobilize when humanitarian crises arise, but worries about what will happen weeks or months later.
“My main concern is how to maintain a commitment to meeting long-term needs once a crisis is no longer in the headlines, as well as opening people’s hearts to crises of a significant scale that do not are not really covered by the media; for example, Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, etc,” she said.
Along with its work in Latin America and the Caribbean, Cadena has helped over 8,000 families move from Ukraine to Spain and provided housing, education and health services. Laniado believes there are enough resources in the private sector to help everyone through multiple global crises.
“People are hurting, and we don’t have to judge… who is hurting more,” he said. “Every crisis, every event or danger… we have to treat it as a unique event. And that’s why we have a lot of deployments right now.