Puerto Rico: Leading from the Front and Learning 

Zachary Brooks-Miller

On the afternoon of, Friday the 13th of April, Team Rubicon contractors finished the 50th reinforced roof in Puerto Rico, helping over 125 people better weather the upcoming hurricane season. 

Rewind to late 2017. 

In the immediate aftermath of Maria, our team deployed a medical and sawyer team to provide support to residents in various parts of Puerto Rico.  After three months, over 229 volunteers treated 2,592 patients and removed over 2.5 kilometers of debris. With Operation Coqui Calling coming to a close, TR leadership began looking at how the organization could make the most significant impact moving forward.

The need in Puerto Rico was unprecedented in U.S. history. The communications, electrical, and transportation infrastructure was all but destroyed. Over 60,000 houses lost their roofs, and hundreds of thousands were unable to access clean drinking water. Commodities were still being delivered via convoy to the center of the island. 

The only thing we knew was that inaction was not an option.

At this point, it was four months after Hurricane Maria made landfall and six months away from the start of the 2018 hurricane season. The challenge was daunting and would require innovation and tenacity, but thats what TR does best. After careful deliberation, we decided that putting roofs over the heads those in need would have an immediate impact.

Due to the scale of devastation in Puerto Rico, and the fact TR was emerging from the most significant response in its history (Hurricane Harvey), we knew that an innovative approach would be needed. So we broke from TR’s
 traditional model. We hired local contractors and construction companies as a means to expedite services to those most impacted by the hurricane and put money back into the local economy. Today, we are employing 45 local construction workers.

Michael Lloyd, a fellow Greyshirt, and Clay Hunt Fellow led the charge for Team Rubicon, establishing critical relationships with contractors and our partner The Disaster Services Corporation – St. Vincent de Paul USA. The dynamics in Puerto Rico differ significantly from those of a CONUoperation, and we adapted quickly. The reigns have been taken up by Chris Gaffney, Hilda Vlachopoulou, and Jaisel Cosme – all fluent Spanish speakers who bring a variety of experiences to the table and are driving the program forward.

Clay Hunt Fellow Michael Lloyd working with local contractors during the first stage of the project.

Before we talk about the successes of this program, we have to admit that we were slow to get started. The general contractors didn’t start swinging hammers until 15 February. That’s 135 days after the hurricane made landfall. Think about all that happened during that time, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas, New Years, the Super Bowl, and Valentine’s Day. To be blunt, we were too slow. 

While we took a deliberate look at the best way forward, we didn’t get our project lead on the ground until mid-December. Finding the right person was extremely difficult. And after weeks of negotiating contract terms between general contractors and our Puerto Rico legal counsel, negotiations broke down in the 11th hour. While Puerto Rico is U.S. territory, its laws differ considerably. It took us a month to get back on track. We must do better in the future. 

Our Impact and Whats Next

It’s now less than two months before the start of hurricane season and “We’re running out of time,” according to FEMA Chief, Brock Long

While the 50 roofs may seem like a significant milestone, there remains an unprecedented need in Puerto Rico. In late March 2018, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed its last temporary blue tarp, bringing the total to 59,469. Remember that blue tarps have a lifespan of 30-60 days. June 1, the start of hurricane season, is now only 47 days away. 

The team has already rebuilt 49 roofs.

For more on the housing crisis in Puerto Rico, read this article in the Miami Herald: Half of Puerto Rico’s housing was built illegally. Then came Hurricane MariaIn addition to the housing crisis Puerto Rico is in the midst of the longest power blackout in U.S. history and the second longest in the world, according to the Rhodium GroupRemember, this is American territory. 

While the statistics are daunting, keep in mind that Team Rubicon is directly impacting those devastated by the storm on a daily basis. We are protecting families from the next rainfall, and from the mold, helping them regain a sense of normalcy in their everyday lives. Families now have a roof over their heads where they can feel safe, sleep, and begin rebuilding their lives.

Team Rubicon is continuing to refine its model. We are working with our general contractor to improve roof designs. We are partnering with GAF, the largest roofing company in the world to receive building materials, and technical assistance for our contractors. We are building Puerto Rico back better.

Team Rubicon will continue to work with our NVOAD partners and coordinate through FEMA, utilizing the VALOR Program to assist those in need. We will explore different fundraising opportunities to potentially expand our current operations, and we will continue to scale contractor hiring to put as many roofs over families before the start of the 2018 Hurricane season in June and beyond. Team Rubicon is committed to doing all we can in support of Puerto Rico’s recovery from hurricane Maria.  

And of course, I saved the best for last: We are actively planning to utilize our greatest asset, our Greyshirts, in supporting Puerto Rico’s recovery. We have team members on the ground sourcing work and determining the best path forward. 

More to follow. 

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