Vieques, Puerto Rico Relief Mission

Updated: Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on the 20th of September.

I am Alekz Londos. On the 3rd of October I flew from California to San Juan, Puerto Rico to transport some medical supplies donated by Sustainable Fiji. I brought them directly to the San Juan Central Hospital as they were in desperate need of everything! I asked the staff where my expertise was needed, they directed me to the remote island of Vieques located East of Puerto Rico. There were 4000 homes [before hurricane Maria] that housed approximately 8000 residents. They said it was the worst affected area. I then recruited two volunteers, Patric and Brice. We rented a car and traveled across the main island to the port at Fajardo. We were warned by the locals it was too dangerous for us to go to the island without armed military security. They mentioned a safer alternative for us, the island of Culebra. We talked it over and decided that if it was that dangerous there, if people were that desperate was because they needed the most help!! We set up our tents at the port that night and took a ferry to Vieques the next day.

On the first day, I attended a private governmental meeting at City Hall with the State Gaurd, local officials, vice mayor and police. I presented myself, my vision and was granted approval to construct a central Hurricane Relief Center in the downtown Plaza. My two volunteers and I build and operated the entire Relief Center while also camping at it surrounded by debris. It was a challenging effort to cleanup and secure the area for future relief efforts. After a week we were so appreciated we were given a complimentary 4 X 4 Polarus UTV rental for our missions and a really nice vacation rental house to work from that is only two blocks from the Relief Center! The 3 story, 3 bedroom, 3 bath house even has a swimming pool! In return, we've been cleaning it up!!

The New York National Guard showed up a week later to provide additional security in protecting the people and large generators running critical facilities in the island. One of National Guard soldiers and I had an hour long conversation as he told me Vieques was a High Profile Mission above every other 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico. There is still a curfew on the island from 12-5am.

After two weeks, it was clear Brice [who was previously in the National Guard for 6 years] couldn't handle the stress and was literally escorted off the island by the Military and police. Patric stayed and is doing amazing as each day I assign him tasks or he creates on his own. He has done an extraordinary job helping with recovery efforts by completing hundreds of objectives.

The Relief Center has been a complete success helping thousands of people. We have distributed the aid that I brought from California and what we brought from San Juan as well as donations we accepted from Vieques locals who were less affected by the hurricane. I have treated dozens of medical patients even animals and Patric constantly helps clean up the entire plaza. Unfortunately all of the children on the island have been out of school for the last month therefore we have turned the plaza in into a community safe area for both children and families. We have helped facilitate and organized a wide range of community outreach events to help people come together and debrief; Halloween Parties, yoga, Zumba, Movie Nights [with a generator run projector], potlucks and small concerts. Thousands of people now come to and enjoy the area we collectively created!! This makes us feel wonderful and accomplished!! We are constantly told there has never been this number of people in the plaza, ever.

Regardless, things are still very difficult for this community as we are continuing to get people humanitarian aid and stabilize the region. I personally have been directly networking with the local municipalities, FEMA, the National Guard, vice Mayor and various reputable organizations. Yes, even now there is still a desperate need for additional help and resources.

The city water has been very inconsistent and unreliable since the storm. Last week, it was off for 5 days straight with no storms for rain water catchment. Every store I visited was completely out of bottled water. I spent hundreds of dollars buying juice and passing out cups in the plaza. At its worst, we were breaking open coconuts, catching rain water and filtering it to drink. There is only juice, sugary drinks, beer and liquor although these options take money and since their is no tourist visiting Vieques people are quickly running out of what money they might have had. The salt water ocean isn't an option and the creeks are polluted with military waste and this island use to be a military dump sight. One third of the island is still restricted from civilians.

The water came back on for two days and has been back off for three. There are several large neighborhoods throughout the island that haven't had ANY running water since Hurricane Irma. Most people will never experience how heartbreaking it feels every time a young child comes up asking if you have any water and you have to tell them "you're sorry, No.... you don't have any either"

The entire island is still without electricity. It's been 40 days since the storm and isn't expected to be fully restored until March of next year. Diesel powered generators is the main source of electrical energy aside from sparse personal solar panel charging systems. You hear people exited about Tesala possibly starting a renewable energy project on the island.

After two weeks, the gas shortages were so widespread that people actually waited in lines for 12 hours to refuel and there were several days within the last month of NO gas anywhere!! The National Guard is having a difficult time preventing people from syphoning gas from the governmental generators, taking parts or stealing the entire thing.

There is widespread food and water shortages because the entire economy and food transportation system has been affected. Store shelves are still stocked thin. FEMA was a complete disgrace as they were mainly distributing soda and non-nutritious sugary processed snacks and soda. Corruption has also set in and some local police have been seen stockpiling rations and MRE's for themselves.

After two weeks, Samsung Galaxy Edge was destroyed while out on a extremely dangerous medical mission in a remote area of the island at 1am. I lost all of my beginning images from this trip. Everything else is backed up.

There is no cell phone signal connectivity or data network for most of the residences on the island as I am sending out this post through complex communication wifi hotspot was established at the plaza next to my Hurricane Relief Center. This is the main internet data communications network to the outside world. The wifi system is a complex series of computers and high tech electronics interconnected by the National Guard, Generation Give, Google technicians and Net Hope. It used both satellite as well as phone line and fiber optics transmission.

Communications is key to societal stability. I let people charge their phones on my portable solar charging systems and have set up charging stations via power strips and extension cords to government generators. This has helped charge dozens of phones, laptops and battery packs.

Since the forms of communication is limited and inconsistent, I often drive around my other golf cart announcing various resources being distributed in the plaza through my powerful megaphone!

When I transported an urgent medical patient to the hospital it was completely shut down, the front doors were wide open, water all over the floor, a few dim lights flickered throughout the halls although the building was empty..... a small makeshift tent was set up outside to the left. They had a staff of 4 people, three nurses and one doctor. The patient I brought in had his lower intestines herniating under his skin and well as exhibiting seizures like episodes. The doctor told me they are very low on supplies, people are dying and can't be evacuated. He expressed his sadness and frustration. Next to us lay a 90 year old man suffering and twisting in extreme pain while tied down and on life support.

The morgue in Vieques, Puerto Rico had the backup generator stollen right after Hurricane Maria past over the region. There were 4 bodies in the refrigeration unit that began to decompose and had to be buried right away without embalming. Some of the bodies are becoming so decomposed while waiting for a doctor to confirm the individual they have to be transported to the main island in 4 body bags because of the smell. Weeks later, there is still no electricity on the island and still no generator. The morgue is still unable to embalm bodies or prepare them for ceremonial viewing. They have to bury the bodies brought in immediately after death with all of the blood left in the bodies. Benitez Guzman, the Funeral Director tells me there has been a drastic increase in deaths since the hurricane as he mentions heart attacks as one of the causes. He explains how low they are on supplies and only have 5 body bags left. The building's roof is leaking in every room and the casket slots are almost full.

We were told by a FEMA employee that hundreds of children have gone missing across Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria.... this number is disgusting and horrifying!! We have to regain control and stability of this region!!

Thankfully, some aid groups are slowly entering the region. They mainly consist of Doctors, Veterinarians, communications technicians and one group handing out buckets and Sawer water filtration systems.

The Boys and Girls Club, Red Cross, The Humane Society, local government, small nonprofits and community members have donated clothes, food, water, hygiene items, books as well as dog food, cat food and litter to my Hurricane Relief Center so it could be distributed fairly. All of these groups have also done great work taking on their own missions. The Boys and Girls Club has preformed above and beyond all expectations!!!

I have been able to buy large quantities of rice, beans or spaghetti to cook warm meals for the people in the plaza. I also organized a major potluck in the plaza [with military security] a few nights ago that helped bring the community together.... dozens of people showed up. There was even live music!

I was approached by the Boys and Girls Club and asked to speak in front of all of their children. I was fortunate to have a wonderful English to Spanish translator. I explained to the children how a hurricane forms, the damage they create and the unusual activity taking place where they all live. I also talked about disaster preparedness and how to build a Bug Out Bag B.O.B. of their own. I feel the Boys and Girls Club has gone far above and beyond every other nonprofit.

Everyday, I try to stay positive, friendly and outgoing. I engage in many conversations daily to help answer questions or facilitate connections between people and the appropriate aid agencies they need assistance.

Please know, Patric and I have everything we need as we ration our food, water and fuel.... yes, things here are slowly improving yet there are still many people still hungry!! We are only limited from helping to our full potential by money!! Thankfully, we can now withdraw money from the ATM's right here in Vieques!!

After we receive donations, my volunteer and I will likely take the ferry back to the main island of Puerto Rico for another supply. I will buy large volumes of food to prepare for the community as well as nonperishable food/water and humanitarian aid to distribute. With your help, we can continue to help the people affected by this horrible disaster.

This is my international portfolio.

This is my Facebook

Sincerely Alekz Londos of Advanced Disaster Relief; humanitarian, environmentalist, activist and bias photojournalist.
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Alekz Londos 
Santa Cruz, CA
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