By Kate Hurowitz
Editor’s note: Kate Hurowitz, an internal communications manager at Google, was a member of the NetHope team deployed to Puerto Rico and its official mission storyteller.
El Banco de Alimentos de Puerto Rico (The Puerto Rico Food Bank) sits in a nondescript warehouse near a busy intersection in Bayamon, just outside of San Juan. Passing by, you’d be forgiven for not realizing what an important role it’s playing in Puerto Rico’s recovery. But the constant stream of trucks might offer a clue: The trucks contain tons of donated food and supplies.
El Banco de Alimentos de Puerto Rico is a member of Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the U.S. Since Maria struck, the scrappy organization has been in overdrive: In a typical year, the food bank distributes about 10 million pounds of food and personal care items; in the past two months alone, more than 3.6 million pounds have passed through their doors. “We have a lot of partners in the States that are locally stepping up to work with us,” explains Carol Garrity of Feeding America (pictured at right in above photo). Carol arrived on one of the first humanitarian flights into the island to help coordinate the response.
Deliveries are sorted and stacked as they come in; forklift operators deftly maneuver heavy pallets to fill every square inch of the space. Busy volunteers pack family-sized bags with peanut butter, rice, and other essentials. When available, they’re also preparing supplies like water filtration systems and fans. Just about everything that enters the building leaves again within 48 hours, this time headed to nonprofit community organizations across the island for distribution. It’s a well-oiled machine, as long as the generator keeps running.
Operations may be running smoothly now, but the early days were chaotic, to say the least. The food bank weathered the storm with minimal property damage, and the staff made it through safely, though several experienced significant damage to their homes. There was immediate need for their services, but without electricity, cell service, or internet, it was challenging to manage both the requests for support and the influx of donations. Like many Puerto Ricans in the weeks after the storm, the staff spent much of their time driving around, searching for a cellphone signal—then pulling over to the side of the road, hazards flashing, to make a call.
Carol heard about NetHope and reached out. Soon afterward, the team visited the warehouse and installed a satellite connection. The difference has been huge. “Now we can process requests from the municipalities and connect with those supporting feeding efforts throughout the island,” says Ivonne Bernard, Executive Director of the Banco de Alimentos (pictured left in above photo). “We can also apply for grants, and communicate with the many people who want to help us with food, money, and fundraising campaigns.”
The holidays in Puerto Rico will be bittersweet this year. Over 100,000 people have left the island since the storm, so many families are separated. Half the island is still without electricity, and jobs are still scarce. But Feeding America and the Banco de Alimentos de Puerto Rico will be there, providing nutritious food and a serving of hope as islanders start down the long road to recovery.
To donate to NetHope’s Hurricane Relief Fund, please click here. Thank you for your continued support.