My three full days in Puerto Rico as a member of the second team in the Green Cross deployment have so far proven to be full, eye opening, and impactful. Four months since catastrophic Hurricane Maria tore threw the island, the visible physical devastation on the ground seems to be hit or miss. Most structures from the purview of our car window driving through greater San Juan appear to be mostly intact, but every now and then we pass a building, house, bridge or other structure that is completely destroyed, sometimes tangled into knots.
The same is true with the vegetation. The lush tropical surroundings frequently give way to areas where it looks as if the trees were mangled and robbed by Maria of their verdant vibrancy. However, upon closer inspection, you can see ambitious buds of leafy green emerging from the bare branches. Locals tell us that nature’s emergence of new life after devastation is a very powerful symbol of hope for the Puerto Rican people who are themselves finding emerging new life in the wake of devastation.
Half of our team is staying at an old convent on the outskirts of San Juan. The boisterous sounds of tropical birds, crickets, and other strange creatures greets us in the pitch black each evening as we come back after a full day of meetings and activities. There is still no electricity in the convent, or in the surrounding area at all – and no signs of it coming back anytime soon, though “next Friday” is always a hope. One of the nuns told us that usually this time of year they are fully booked with retreat participants but because of the hurricane and the electricity situation we are among just a small handful of guests. Cold showers have brought a sense of aliveness and invigoration. I feel lucky to have running water at all, and something about the lack of electricity feels romantic. That said, if this was something I had to live with every day, especially as a constant reminder of the catastrophe that had caused it, I’d probably be feeling very differently about it.
Mari Jorge, the head of the team of social workers at the Centro Medico (the largest medical center in the Caribbean and one you definitely need gps to get around!) who has been instrumental in introducing us to key contacts and helping us set up trainings, is one of the many who has been without electricity at home since the hurricane hit. She said it is a huge challenge to function without it, especially after a busy day at work supporting those who’ve suffered so much after the disaster. In some neighborhoods, seemingly for no rhyme or reason, one side of the street has power and the other doesn’t. So the unlucky families get to watch through their windows with flashlights and candles as their neighbors cook dinner and watch TV.
Functioning traffic lights are also sporadic. About 60% of the intersections operate according to the game of chicken, with the bigger cars and more aggressive drivers having right-of-way. As a result, traffic, which even on a good day before the hurricane was a bit crazy, is now even more loco with near-accidents happening left and right. The supply of gasoline seems to finally be normalized now four months on, but locals tell us that even up to two months after the hurricane, queues to fill the gas pump averaged between 4-6 hours! Staff from the medical center arranged a special arrangement with a few gas stations to be given priority, but even then lines were only slightly shaved to a three hour wait time.
The Compassion Fatigue workshops we’ve offered so far – one at the medical center and another at a church – have been moving. At the medical center, the staff walked in looking tired and resistant and it was beautiful to see their faces soften as they connected with the material and tools we offered. They truly seemed lighter as they left. It was similar with the church members (most of whom were psychologists, physicians, caregivers) – in that forum we were able to interact a little bit more and hear a few of their stories, holding space as some individuals shed tears and processed their losses. They expressed gratitude for what we offered and said that they would bring what they learned into their respective communities. Many seemed interested in receiving more workshops and even training in Compassion Fatigue with Green Cross’ local chapter.
As a team, the five of us have bonded quickly and have found our respective areas of comparative advantage in caring out tasks and sharing expertise in the trainings. After the second training we’re starting to find our groove and get fully in the swing of things as we prepare for a full schedule of workshops over the remaining days of our deployment here.
Jennifer Ludders, CFT
Meditation Retreat Facilitator