Hurricane Maria Gets Personal

September 27th, 2017 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

I wrote in a recent post about how hurricanes and far away disasters can impact us locally.  Usually, it’s an economic impact as donors rightly extend their compassion and their donations to the people and animals in these hard hit areas.

Stephanie Desiderio helping animals and her community at a free vaccination and microchip clinic in Reading this year, made possible by the Giorgi Family Foundation.

But Hurricane Maria has now had a direct impact on Humane Pennsylvania and one of our own. Several of our staff members are natives of Puerto Rico.  One, Stephanie Desiderio, a certified veterinary technician at Humane Veterinary Hospitals Reading, took vacation time to travel to Naranjito, Puerto Rico before the storm to help her grandparents prepare for Hurricane Maria.  Unfortunately, once the storm took direct aim for the island, she couldn’t leave and is now one of millions of people stuck, with no electricity, no access to food, fuel, and (now, finally) only limited cell phone service.

Stephanie is a top notch vet tech, and as pleasant a person as you will meet. Just to give you a sense of what she is like, I’ll share one of the first things I remember about her:  Not long after she was hired I was walking through our hospital and heard a couple of people singing.  It was Stephanie and one of her coworkers, joyfully doing their jobs.  It was infectious, and that’s the kind of person Stephanie is–infectiously joyful.  That’s the only kind of infection you want in a veterinary hospital.

Thankfully, Stephanie and her grandparents are safe and sound, to the extent you can be in these conditions. Until the last day or two we couldn’t even reach her to make sure she was OK.  We know that this story is repeated for thousands of families in Reading and Lancaster, which both have large Puerto Rican communities.  It is nearly unimaginable that this many people–this many United States citizens–could be facing such a challenge and that we are helpless to assist someone in our own family.

We are doing what we can. We were finally able to speak to her in person today and I told her that we would keep her on payroll and insurance for as long as it takes to get her safely back.  I hope she will forgive me for sharing this, but when she heard this she began sobbing.  Like so many people, loss of a few days’ salary, let alone weeks’ salary, could result in personal catastrophe.  Humane Pennsylvania won’t let that happen to one of our own.

But I asked her to do something in exchange for this assistance. I asked her to help any animal she could, find any local group who was helping animals and help them, and to be ready to help any groups who we know of working in her area.  She, of course, said yes, because she has devoted her life and her work to helping animals.  We are proud to have such a representative of our organization available to help people and animals in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico in its time of need.

Naranjito, Puerto Rico, before.

We will share any news we get from her. She says the situation is terrible, that she has not seen a single dog or cat, and that she fears many or most drowned due to widespread flooding.  Survivors will need help, and we couldn’t ask for a better person to be there. (UPDATE 9/28/17:  Stephanie has a confirmed flight out October 8 and may have an earlier humanitarian flight for her with one of the several groups we are working with to provide assistance in Puerto Rico.)

This begs the question that has been asked again and again (and again and again).  Are we ready here in Pennsylvania, in Berks and Lancaster Counties, for “The Big One”?  Quite simply, the answer is no.  Despite our work since before Hurricane Katrina as the leader of the Berks County Animal Response Team, and our partnerships with the State Animal Response Team to support response in Lancaster County, despite our repeated sheltering deployments in our and surrounding counties, and despite being asked to support rescue efforts across the nation in the past ten years, the scale of our capability is small.

Naranjito, Puerto Rico, after.

We can count on helping tens, scores, maybe a hundred animals at a time in an emergency. But what about hundreds, or a thousand at a time, as we see happening in major catastrophes?  Can we–should we–count on big outside groups to get to us?  Or should we be prepared on our own?

I believe the answer is clearly the latter. We will want all the help we can get, but we should be able to deliver services on a large scale on our own in our own community.  Imagine the unimaginable.  Limerick Nuclear station has problem and tens of thousands of nearby residents are evacuated.  Or a local chemical plant has an accident, or massive fires break out, or a terrorist attacks, or massive flooding causes destruction due to a hurricane (remember Agnes in 1972)?

It can happen here and it will happen here, at some point. Humane Pennsylvania is currently working on expanding our emergency resources and I will be sharing those plans with you over the next year.  Until then, please remember that when disaster hits, we are here (and sometimes elsewhere, with folks like Stephanie). We can only be here with your help. Keep us strong, keep us prepared, and keep us ahead of the next catastrophe.  Please make a donation today.

Give to them. Then give to us.  Thank you.

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