Diego Marcano (’19) spent three weeks reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Photo by Anna Wilson (SPH’19)

COM and public health students travel to Puerto Rico to find the untold stories of Hurricane Maria

By Diego Marcano (’19)

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with winds of 155 mph, wiping out infrastructure across the island and leaving Puerto Ricans without electricity or telecommunications. Thousands of people fled their homes for shelters. Just 11 days earlier, Hurricane Irma had passed over the island, leaving one-third of the population without electricity and about 77,000 people without access to water.

Nine months after Maria, I landed in San Juan with my colleagues and fellow students Anna Wilson (SPH’19) and Cynthia Fernández (’20). Our goal was to find and record some of the stories of those who continue to endure the effects of the disaster.

The three of us had met in a new collaborative program: Global Health Storytelling. Created and taught by Anne Donohue, an associate professor of journalism, and Jennifer Beard, a BU School of Public Health clinical associate professor of global health, the course aims to explore the similarities and tensions between global health research and journalism, and to improve collaboration between the two disciplines.

In early 2018, we were studying gun violence and addiction in Boston, but at the end of the spring semester, Donohue and Beard had an idea for another project: A team would travel to Puerto Rico ahead of Hurricane Maria’s one-year anniversary and cover public health issues, as professional correspondents would. Luis Alberto Ferré Rangel (’90), then editor-in-chief of GFR Media, opened the doors at El Nuevo Día, so we could work out of the newsroom of the biggest newspaper in Puerto Rico. (Ferré Rangel is now chief social innovation officer at GFR and chief editorial advisor of GFR Media.)

Diego Marcano (’19) and Luis Alberto Ferré Rangel (’90) discuss the importance of reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The work produced by that paper’s reporters and staff during and after the hurricanes is legendary. They deployed staff across the island while 44 journalists, producers, designers and editors worked from the newsroom to keep the island informed. The day after Maria made landfall, when the roads were still blocked and communications out, El Nuevo Día printed and delivered the newspaper for free. The paper was a lifeline for Puerto Rico.

For three weeks we worked from the newspaper’s headquarters, consulting with veteran journalists and traveling across the island to cities and remote areas. Our reporting took us to Ponce, Utuado, Vieques and Yabucoa in search of untold stories of those affected by Hurricane Maria. Weekends and weekdays blurred together as we raced to report our stories.

Our research had begun long before we landed in Puerto Rico. We had studied natural disasters, the trauma they cause, their impact on mental health, and how long it takes communities to recover. We read as much media coverage of the storm as we could, as well as studies that attempted to identify the real death toll of the hurricane. Following the storm, the Puerto Rican government attributed 64 deaths to Hurricane Maria. Academic studies have since estimated death tolls from 1,100 all the way to 4,645. In August, nearly a year after the storm, a study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government estimated 2,975 deaths.

We planned each trip outside San Juan to maximize our time and budget. To find people with compelling stories about life during and after the hurricane, we established connections with nonprofit organizations, community leaders and specialists.

I knew from the initial research that the hurricane left many people living in life-threatening conditions. During our visit, FEMA reported that 95 percent of the electrical grid had been restored, but there were still unofficial reports of thousands of people without power. Among those, some were patients with special conditions and chronic illness. My goal became to find these patients in remote areas who felt they were forgotten.

In Camino Nuevo, Yabucoa, 34 miles from San Juan, I met Maria Victoria Sánchez, a 65-year-old woman. She cares for her bedridden mother, 86-year-old Eufemia González. The two endured seven months without power after Hurricane Maria ripped two doors from their house and ruined all their furniture on the second floor. Eventually, they received a small generator from González’s son in New Jersey. They would run it from 2 to 9 pm to power González’s daily respiratory therapies. They also used battery-powered fans to keep her cool and prevent the skin ulcers bedridden patients often develop.

I saw how my empathy helped Sánchez open up and share these personal experiences. She expressed feelings of abandonment and uncertainty. “My mother is bedridden. I am the one that has to do everything—feed her, bathe her, keep her as comfortable as I can,” she told me. “Hurricane Maria left many elderly helpless.”

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  • Diego Marcano (’19) explores the beach in Yabucoa where Hurricane Maria first made landfall. Photo by Anna Wilson (SPH’19)

  • After a Harvard study estimated Hurricane Maria’s death toll at more than 70 times the official government estimate, Puerto Rico residents left shoes outside of the Capitol in San Juan. Photo by Anna Wilson (SPH’19)

  • Maria Victoria Sánchez (left), 65, cares for her mother, Eufemia González (right), 86, in a Yabucoa home that was without electricity for seven months following Hurricane Maria. Photo by Diego Marcano (’19)

  • Diego Marcano (’19) interviews Maria Victoria Sánchez, a resident of Yabucoa, where Hurricane Maria first made landfall. Photo by Anna Wilson (SPH’19)

  • Anna Wilson (SPH’19) visits Montes Llano, Ponce, where Water Mission, a nonprofit organization, is helping the community recover from the storm. Photo by Diego Marcano (’19)

  • Water Mission helped the community build a solar power system that will pump water to almost 200 residents. Photo by Diego Marcano (’19)

  • Rosa González, 67, a community leader in the Roncador neighborhood of Utuado, has been working with Proyecto Agua Limpia to test local water sources. Photo by Anna Wilson (SPH’19)

  • Valerie Martinez, a graduate student in public health at the University of Puerto Rico, tests a remote water supply in the central Puerto Rico region of Utuado. The organization Proyecto Agua Limpia found E. coli in 57 percent of more than 2,300 households tested following Hurricane Maria. Photo by Anna Wilson (SPH’19)

A story developed by my classmate Anna Wilson took us to the mountains of Utuado, in central Puerto Rico. There, we followed two public health students working with Proyecto Agua Limpia, an initiative of the Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust, to provide access to drinking water. During our visit, the students were testing contamination levels in the water supply, deep in the jungle.

“It is our duty to record and uncover the maladies of modern society: social injustice, corruption, second-class citizenship, poverty, inequality and discrimination. It is our duty to highlight those struggles to help remedy those maladies.”
– Luis Alberto Ferré Rangel

They were joined by Rosa González, a 67-year-old community leader determined to maintain and improve the local water system. The hurricane had damaged the road that leads to their source of spring water, so what once would’ve been a short walk became a hazardous hour-and-a-half trek over fallen trees and across slippery stones. Only by joining them on the ground were we able to witness Rosa González’s resilience. It gave this story of community water access a personal angle. Sometimes there is only so much an interview can tell you.

Other leads took us to the mountains north of Ponce, where the Samaritan’s Purse is working with a community to install solar panels to power their water system. We spoke with scholars from the University of Puerto Rico to better understand breakdowns in the healthcare system that left officials uncertain of identities and locations of patients with serious medical conditions. We worked with Americares, a nonprofit specializing in crisis and disaster management response, to identify the most vulnerable people in the population. And I visited the suicide prevention hotline, Línea PAS, which was established in 2001 to assist Puerto Ricans affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The hotline saw a spike in calls following Hurricane Maria. Each experience enlightened our reporting and deepened our understanding of the stories we were investigating.

A few weeks before our trip, Ferré Rangel had spoken at COM’s 2018 convocation ceremony. He talked about the challenges his media company endured during and after the storms, and I found inspiration in his words while reporting there: “Stay on the story when the story matters the most. It will be our job, your job, to help shed light upon catastrophe and disaster…. It is our duty to record and uncover the maladies of modern society: social injustice, corruption, second-class citizenship, poverty, inequality and discrimination. It is our duty to highlight those struggles to help remedy those maladies. But it is also our duty to always stay on the story, and to never, never, ever give up.”

Staying on the Story

Luis Alberto Ferré Rangel (’90) urged students to “stay on the story when the story matters the most,” during COM’s 2018 convocation ceremony. BU Productions

Diego Marcano (’19) is a graduate candidate in journalism at BU’s College of Communication. He has worked in Venezuela with the online media outlet Prodavinci, and his work has been published by the Colombian national newspaper El Espectador, Harvard’s Nieman Foundation and Boston University’s BU News Service. He is particularly interested in human rights, migration and politics.

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  1. Thank you so much for continuing to document the devastation in Puerto Rico. After I was graduated from COM in 1970, I became a VISTA Volunteer in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico and lived on a farm in Bo. Mulitas Tiza. Eight months after Hurricane Maria hit the island, I visited the family with whom I lived. The second floor of their house was blown off and their platano trees were destroyed. Other houses in a valley across their road still had no power — eight months after the storm had hit!!! It’s a scandal that the federal government continues to gloss over the devastation.

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