When Sen. Nancy Pelosi called on President Donald Trump this week to increase aid to the residents of hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico, Sacramento-area nurse Catherine Kennedy was by her side.
Kennedy, a neonatal nurse at Kaiser Permanente’s Roseville Medical Center, led a team of 50 nurses from around the United States on a disaster relief mission in Puerto Rico from Oct. 4-18.
She said she is concerned that contaminated water, a lack of food and black mold will increase the death toll from Hurricane Maria, which struck the island Sept. 20 with Category 4 velocity. She said she thinks the federal government should quickly provide materials to cover damaged roofs, dedicate resources to fixing the energy grid, ensure medical personnel are available around the island, distribute water filtration systems, and stop price-gouging.
Kennedy visited a hospital that was running off electrical generators, she said, so it was impossible to do a procedure like an MRI because it required more power than a generator could provide. Every day between noon and 2 p.m., she said, it rains, and everything gets wet because roofs on homes and buildings have not been repaired yet. Black mold, she said, is a real danger to everyone.
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“By the time we got out there and started treating these folks, they said to us, ‘You’re the first people we’ve seen since the hurricane,’ ” Kennedy said in an interview. “They were desperate. They needed water; they needed food.”
Speaking on Thursday, Pelosi said that 35 percent of Puerto Ricans still lack cell service, while 1 million don’t have clean running water. Three-quarters of sewage treatment plants are still not functioning.
“We are calling on President Trump and the administration to treat this as a national emergency, with the urgency that Puerto Rico deserves,” she said.
The Trump administration has said that it has approved millions of dollars in assistance for individuals and businesses. The mission is logistically complex, however, said officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They say they have sent more than 16,000 federal workers to the U.S. territory, along with food and bottled water, yet Kennedy said members of her team were disturbed to see so many people without food or potable water.
The nurses, who took personal leave from hospitals around the nation, made the trip as part of a delegation of skilled workers under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO. The health care team also included a small number of doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, Kennedy said. A separate group of nurses came down with another organization. They were able to create eight teams of 10 health care workers to send out to municipalities beyond San Juan.
Sharon Esguerra, another neonatal nurse from Kaiser Roseville who joined the trip, said many people they encountered were drinking rainwater or water from creeks. With no running water available, the nurses showed them how to use drops of bleach to kill bacteria that can contaminate such water. It sounds crazy, she and Kennedy said, but it works.
“We made Costco runs. We got water. We got food and we did it ourselves,” Esguerra said. “We went to one place where FEMA was doing paperwork for people. Why they weren’t giving out food, I’m not sure. ... They were issuing coupons for $50 cash that people could take to the bank. So, people had to wait in line for FEMA and then wait in line for the bank. I didn’t understand it.”
That assistance was primarily available in San Juan or municipalities closest to it, but further out, Esguerra said, she saw a great unmet need. Teamsters cleared trees and debris from roads so they could get to people who needed health checks. They set up water filtration systems for poor barrios where people were unlikely to have the means to get bleach. They served as security for lines when nurses handed out food and water. They fixed electrical wiring to buildings.
Esguerra said she celebrated her 65th birthday on Oct. 4 as she flew into the first disaster zone she’d ever visited. United Airlines provided a plane to take the whole group to the island, and they gave each team member a voucher to fly home.
The relief mission was coordinated by RN Response Network, the nonprofit arm of National Nurses United, and the organization has produced a report with recommendations. It’s available at www.nationalnursesunited.org.