As the winds howled around her and the rain sliced down in thick sheets, Angela Sousa was understandably apprehensive.
“As I prepared for Hurricane Maria,” relates Sousa, “I went over my list: food, water, medicine, check; lanterns and batteries, check; copies of personal documents, extra cash, and radio, check…Seeing my apprehension my neighbors said, 'tranquila, eso no viene ná' (easy, that thing won’t come…)."
But come it did, and Hurricane Maria turned out to be one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the Caribbean region in history, devastating the island and turning the residents’ lives upside down.
"In 2017, Irma came first. We were better prepared, both physically and emotionally. But as Irma's impact was not severe, we let our guard down.”
Sousa’s foresight to prepare may have helped save her and her family. But, the real anxiety, she says, came after the winds and water had stopped and she discovered no cell phone signals. “We lost contact with family, friends, and our ability to receive information about services. At that time, we realized that no one was prepared for that man-made disaster.”
As a staff member of NetHope’s Information Management team, Sousa knows that without contact and access to information, the prospect of a future without connection to the “outside world” can be nearly as frightening as the actual storm.
While Sousa wasn’t involved with NetHope during Maria, she was hired in March 2018, supported by a grant from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP). Her goal was to better understand the needs in the storm’s recovery phase and to facilitate meetings for local and international NGOs to promote collaboration and coordination. “I had the opportunity to connect with more than 100 local NGOs and entities such as the University of Puerto Rico, FEMA, PREMA, and PRVOAD, and 22 international NGOs, most of which were NetHope members. I listened to them and learned about their experience with Maria and their preparation for future natural events.”
Sousa began her humanitarian career working in marginalized communities in São Paulo, Brazil with faith-based programs for youth and children, known as Pastoral da Juventude (PJ) and Pastoral da Criança. The Pastoral is a CNBB (Brazilian Bishops National Conference) social action organization whose mission is to contribute to the development of children within their familiar community environment. She then spent a year and half working for the World Bank as a consultant and with a bilingual program in Washington, D.C., before deciding to move back to Puerto Rico to support recovery efforts.
She says that even two years after Hurricane Maria, residents are still feeling its negative impact on the economy, healthcare, and food security. “We have learned that we need to know our weaknesses and strengths; we must work on collaborative projects and—most importantly—support community initiatives.”
“For Maria we did not prepare ourselves with the same care as for Irma. We have learned that no matter the circumstances we need to be better prepared with a consistent plan, especially as the relationship between these events and climate change becomes more evident. "
To accomplish this, Sousa explains that international and local NGOs are working to better understand current needs and the transition of programs from emergency to recovery. Group work in cluster areas includes: healthcare, food security, communications and community, infrastructure, logistics access and distribution, and economic development. “Within each of the selected areas, we brainstorm on how to become more effective and well-rounded in each through the stages of preparedness, response, and recovery,” says Sousa.
With NetHope as the catalyst for organization and support, the organizations have created a list of emergency contacts, resources prepositioned on the island, and general information about organizations, preparedness, disaster response, recovery, and cluster areas, all aimed at helping tonegate the communications challenges that occurred during Maria.
“Collaboration,” she stresses, “is important to coordinate efforts and to improve communication between local and international NGOs. It is the only way to produce an effective action plan to tend to community needs. The most important part of the collaboration process is learning from our shared and individual experiences. The more we engage, the more we will serve our community in an effective way.”