Every now and then, blogging has to take on the journalist’s recommended length of 750 words or more. This is one such time for I want to capture an open-ended process and its results.
On June 14, the rest of the Practicum team members went on a boat ride to absorb knowledge from the ocean vantage. I opted to go to Aguada for the opportunity to experience a community meeting. Because the meeting was not until 11 am and Aguada was only a 15-minute drive from our hotel, I had the morning to myself. I ventured in a few hours of self-directed agenda.
I first walked towards the ocean to explore the impact of Hurricane Maria on the hotel's beachfront area. I was taking photos of exposed PVC pipes and broken concrete pavements when the sound of construction distracted me. On the left of the Rincon-by-the-the Sea hotel, five carpenters were fixing a damaged fence of a villa that was jutting out further into the sea. On the right side of the hotel was a vacant lot where someone with a backhoe was moving grass and sand at the direction of another. I mentally noted construction industry workers are important stakeholders in rebuilding and recovery planning.
I then walked to the hotel’s café for ice coffee. Outside, the morning sun was shining on black ants that were crawling on the wall. I noted how ants came in and out of the space that I focused my cell camera on. The black ants appeared to be working individually but were headed towards common directions. Their movements captured the spirit of individual responses in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
I sauntered towards the hotel lobby and sat in one corner to start blogging. Later, someone’s loud voice made me look up. There, in the center of the lobby, were seniors and elderly people who appeared to be waiting for others. My instinct said that this was not the time for blogging but for active listening.
The voice’s owner introduced herself as “Patria” and she spoke English. I learned from her that they were in the Rincon-by-the-Sea hotel for a daylong celebration of Father’s Day. They are part of an adult day care type center that serves 60 people (ages 57 to 103) and had a staff of 19 (a director, receptionist, drivers, cooks, and nurse were at the gathering). I learned that the center was closed for at least 2 months after Hurricane Maria. The nurse, who could speak a little English, explained that food and sanitation were top priorities in the hurricane aftermath. Patria, who walks with a cane, takes care of her 89-year old bedridden mother. Informed then about the coming hurricane, her brother in Nebraska, who happened to work for Continental Airlines, booked them on a flight out of Puerto Rico. The flight was scheduled two days after Hurricane Maria landed. Patria and her mother went to San Francisco where her sister lived. Patria and her mother returned to Puerto Rico some two or three months ago. Patria feels guilty about the burden that they have put on their relatives but I assured her that staying out of Puerto Rico was their greatest contribution to help Puerto Rico recover quickly. I could not ascertain how many of the 60 elderly people had the option like Patria had. I know that another elderly man had children in Florida and Arizona who took good care of him. Later, at their pool party, I was reminded of the vibrancy and sense of unity among Puerto Ricans. Near the ubiquitous Puerto Rican flag, the elderly survivors of many disasters were dancing rythmically to live music.
The community meeting in Aguada turned out to be a focus group. The hired facilitators asserted the need to respect focus group protocol and our arrival caused a little bit of commotion. After understanding what was going on, I readily empathized with the facilitators and agreed that I did not belong to the community meeting. However, I explained to one of the English-speaking facilitators that Lily Bui, who invited me, was rightfully part of the evolving group and should be allowed in. It is impressive that a group is now meeting focus group-style. It just organized in January of this year.
Two others had to be excluded from the focus group– Lillian Ramirez of UPR Mayaguez Seagrant Program and Carmen Alers Pitre who accompanied her husband who was the president of the local Lions Club. The three of us decided to talk story in the open air section of the El Galleon Restaurant. Carmen, who is a writer/artist and newly-minted grandma, was generous in her storytelling. With Lillian's help, I was able to understand some of the stories. Among others, the ties between the local Lions Club and the one in Newark demonstrated that island-style whole community planning has to include those who are not physically in the island. For example, the Lions Club filled some of the gaps in meeting critically needed supplies. Carmen shared the photo of a mother who needed insulin in order to be healthy enough to take care for her bedridden adult son. Another photo showed a line of Walmart blue 5-gallon buckets that she said were used to collect and purify water.
Island communities have many critical stakeholders. Reflecting back on Hawaii, I feel that the strength of the Island-US Mainland connection can be a little bit different given our more diverse Asia and Pacific Island population. Community stakeholder processes and relationship with Lions Club and other civic clubs can be the same because of club protocols.
Photo: Lillian Ramirez, Carmen Alers Pitre, and a member of the facilitating team.
National Geographic Wild City of Ants https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55tXhnlZoOg