WASHINGTON – Registered nurse volunteers who recently returned from two weeks of providing nursing care and other disaster relief today joined House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress to call for increased aid to confront the ongoing humanitarian and health care crisis in Puerto Rico.
The RNs, members of the Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN)—a disaster relief program sponsored by National Nurses United (NNU), the largest U.S. union of RNs—were in Puerto Rico as part of a 300-member deployment led by the AFL-CIO, in conjunction with the Puerto Rican Federation of Labor and the San Juan Mayor’s office. NNU sent 50 RNs from eight states in its deployment.
“Thank you to the nurses who have traveled home from the frontlines of the crisis to tell their story. Thank you for saving lives, delivering hope, and fighting for more relief,” said Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who called an official NNU report on conditions in Puerto Rico, presented to Congress today, “quite an indictment.”
“Our nurses went to Puerto Rico to provide basic nursing care, but, in community after community, they were shocked to find that Puerto Ricans were facing a deadly lack of food, water and shelter several weeks after Hurricane Maria struck the island,” said Bonnie Castillo, RN, director of NNU’s RNRN program.
“It’s deeply disturbing that the Trump administration continues to pat itself on the back … Just because something has been done, it doesn’t mean much more doesn’t need to be done,” said Pelosi. “Seventy-five percent of Puerto Ricans lack power, 35 percent do not have cell service, one million lack 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.”
Outlining the necessity for urgent assistance in a variety of areas—particularly fixing the energy grid and giving a fiscal boost to Puerto Rico to prevent millions of residents from losing Medicaid coverage, Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), stressed, in her opening remarks, “Lets be clear, congress created this problems and Congress needs to fix it … Fixing Medicaid and the energy grid will not be easy or inexpensive, but they are part of what’s necessary to heal Puerto Rico.”
Castillo reported that NNU had made 12 requests to have the volunteers meet with FEMA to testify on what they have witnessed—only to be denied a meeting. FEMA’s own website notes that those who have made it through the request process for follow up aid will receive an average of only $543 per household compared to $3,802 per household for residents affected by a similar hurricane disaster in Texas.
“Many communities our nurses encountered had never seen anyone from FEMA. And for those Puerto Ricans that did have contact with FEMA, many did not receive a sustaining level of food or water,” said Castillo.
“What we have today here is a group of very courageous people who have given of their time and talent, and we thank you for caring and doing that which is so noble, that which so few people do in our society, which is to give help where help is needed,” Rep. José E. Serrano (D-NY) said to the RNRN volunteers. “[The people of Puerto Rico] are our fellow Americans; they’ve served in our wars, they do pay taxes, and they should be treated equally … FEMA has to be a support arm, not a stumbling block. Puerto Rico deserves better.”
“I am a member of congress, and we oversee the response provided by the federal government. I can say, the government response has been inadequate,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-IL)
“Our nurses were deployed across the island, in urban and rural areas, and returned with heartbreaking stories,” noted Cathy Kennedy, RN, a vice president of NNU who also served as lead RN for the healthcare teams on the deployment.
“Many people they met continued to live in homes with roofs blown off, sleeping on soaking wet mattresses, black mold beginning to spread that can cause rashes, severe respiratory distress and other serious health problems,” Kennedy said.
“People were so desperate for drinking water they were forced to make terrible choices — do they suffer from deadly dehydration or drink from contaminated streams that could also lead to death? Nurses report going into small towns and finding dangerously dehydrated babies lying listlessly in their mothers’ arms,” said Kennedy.
“While we were there, we saw the beginning of a potentially lethal epidemic of leptospirosis, an animal-borne bacterial disease that can be fatal if not properly treated in time. One of our nurses described going into a community where every single resident seemed to be suffering from conjunctivitis. Nurses went door to door and saw people who they are afraid will die before food, water or medicine can reach them,” Kennedy said
“In one town I traveled to, one of the few where FEMA was present, I met a woman named Rosa who arrived with a family member to apply for aid at 3 am, only to find there were already people in line. FEMA arrived at 7 am, opened its doors at 8, and closed them at 10. Many people in line were never seen, and could not apply for assistance,” noted Olivia Lynch, RN.
“What are these people supposed to do? Without electricity and internet access, they cannot apply for FEMA assistance online,” said Lynch. “For those who made it through the line to apply for assistance, FEMA demanded paperwork to confirm routing numbers and home addresses that residents could simply not provide. Their homes had been flooded, their paperwork was wet or missing, and they have no electricity, internet or cell service to get that information.”
“When I travelled to Loíza, I worked with elderly residents who depended on insulin,” said Christine Grant, RN. “Because there is no electricity, the insulin cannot be refrigerated, threatening its efficacy. The elderly residents I talked with had put their insulin in a bowl of tepid water, to try to keep it cool so that it would allow them to survive. The fact is that without refrigeration, people with diabetes, hypertension, and other illnesses, are at risk of severe illness and death.”
“Many pharmacies in Puerto Rico can’t refrigerate medications either. Because of the lack of electricity, many pharmacies also cannot access prescription orders that are stored electronically, so patients cannot get refills without a new prescription. With many doctors’ offices closed, patients who have access to a pharmacy have been scrambling to find someone to write a prescription for them. Others may have access to a doctor, but not a pharmacy.”
“We cannot be silent while millions of people continue to endure such treacherous conditions. Given the growing climate crisis, it’s essential that the federal government is prepared to respond expeditiously to increasingly dire natural disasters. It is unacceptable that the richest country on earth is denying necessary aid to its own citizens and leaving its people to die,” Castillo said.