Upon arriving in Yabucoa, ground zero for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, we were taken back by the municipality’s somber beauty, as if this coastal valley and its people had been forgotten. Homes and public buildings were left in devastated ruins with plastic bottle waste polluting the beautiful scenery; the community looked empty and abandoned.
“It seemed like a bomb fell on us and destroyed everything, everything, everything,” Luis Colon, a police officer and resident of Yabucoa, said.
This sentiment of feeling forgotten is one that is shared by Puerto Ricans throughout the state. A third of Puerto Ricans are still without power and electricity, and with lack of access to clean water as a major issue, bottled water is the main source of water. With Puerto Rico’s very limited landfill capacity, you would, as Phillip Shaw of FEMA states, “imagine the risk of developing a disaster within a disaster.”
Puerto Ricans, however, have voiced their desire for sustainable and renewable energy such as solar and wind, for projects that reduce plastic bottle waste in their state, and for partnership and education programs that are localized and community-based.
As Tzu Chi volunteers, we believe change starts from the self, from the individual. Collaborating with FEMA, other disaster response agencies, schools, civil societies and the local municipal government, the organization is, in addition to providing emergency cash assistance, solar technology, and food and non-food items, developing education and environmental protection programs to combat the issue of plastic bottle waste. Using the “Trash into Gold” concept and program, where plastic bottles are converted into blankets and other products that help with recovery efforts, Tzu Chi plans on developing an on-line curriculum that can be used to change behavior through education and technical expertise.
The organization’s environmental protection concept “works on the premise that people can protect the environment by the choices they make and their behavior as individuals by living a simpler life style and reducing carbon footprint is crucial towards living in harmony with Mother Earth,” as David Meyers of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and previous director of the Department of Homeland Security Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives states.
Tzu Chi will continue to work with our partners and the local populations on the ground for the long haul, rebuilding, setting up schools and water supply, offering free clinics, and more. “We cannot do everything alone, we have to work with our partners,” Debra Boudreaux, Executive Vice President of Tzu Chi USA, said in an interview.