WaterStep on crisis relief in Puerto Rico: ‘The paradigm has to shift’

Mark Hogg maps out training stations in Puerto Rico. | Photo by Chris Kenning

It was kind of a miracle, WaterStep CEO Mark Hogg said. The team that was bringing 22 of the Louisville-based nonprofit’s water purifying systems to municipalities in Puerto Rico had planned on camping in a field. But when they arrived in Vega Alta, about 25 miles outside of San Juan, they were offered a church to serve as their temporary HQ.

The building was mostly intact; over the days they were there, they helped tarp the roof. The church even had clean drinking water, which the team tested several times a day. People cooked two meals a day for the team and the ever-growing crew of volunteers. At night, people gathered at a local bar and danced and played music.

“We were all about the same agenda,” Hogg said.

WaterStep reps train others. | Photo by Chris Kenning

But that’s the good news.

Hogg told Insider the devastation is far worse than we’re hearing on the news. He said most of the municipalities the WaterStep team visited had not seen members of the media or even government representatives or relief workers at all.

This weekend, it was revealed that the death toll from Hurricanes Irma and Maria will far exceed the official count. More than 1,000 people have been cremated since the hurricanes, their deaths cataloged as being from “natural causes.”

But many funeral homes haven’t been keeping clear records, and no one knows which of these “natural causes” were exacerbated by the struggle to survive on an island with virtually no power and no clean water.

Hogg is concerned about the near future. He said it rains nearly daily on the island, and “bacteria and breeding pathogens are everywhere.” Mosquitoes and flies thrive in this environment, and people don’t have the means to disinfect things without clean water. Even many hospitals and clinics lack it.

The team delivered one of the WaterStep systems to a medical university in Ponce.

People are already getting sick from the water, but many water-borne illnesses take weeks to manifest. He worries about typhoid and cholera. He worries, too, about the basic “lifestyle turmoil that puts people in jeopardy.”

If someone was ill or frail before the hurricane, going without basic necessities for months surely weakens her chances of surviving or thriving. Hogg questions how many of those people are counted in the “natural causes” category of deaths — deaths hastened by the stress of the dire living conditions in Puerto Rico.

WaterStep reps and others bathe in runoff water. | Photo by Chris Kenning

Hogg said the disaster hasn’t played favorites on the economically diverse island. He said it’s a “pretty level playing field.” People of means are suffering alongside the poor. You’ll see fancy cars queued up with beaten-up ones at gas stations or along the roadside waiting in line to fill containers from rivers and natural waterfalls.

The WaterStep trip was a partnership with GE Appliances and facilitated in part by Alexandra Lugaro, a former candidate for governor of Puerto Rico. During their stay, Hogg estimates they trained around 100 people on how to use their water purification systems. Those people will train others. Each of the units can produce 10,000 gallons of clean water a day.

By Thanksgiving, or hopefully earlier, WaterStep will have a purification unit set up in each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, some units funded by donations, some paid for by the government of Puerto Rico.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway from the trip for Hogg is that the government’s handling of crises like Maria is utterly broken.

“I hope this will change the way we approach crisis,” he said. However, he’s not hopeful. Virtually nothing has changed since Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago. “We’re still air-dropping millions of bottles of water. We need to evaluate how small NGOs bring things of value to the table. The big dogs don’t have these skills in their arsenal.”

Instead of bringing bottled water to the people — a costly endeavor that is very limited in reach and creates a garbage crisis — if the government harnessed the skills of nonprofits like WaterStep, their efforts could be multiplied and longer lasting. Hogg said it was like the adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish.

The path of the hurricane mapped out with relief sites circled | Photo by Chris Kenning

Not only is this a better answer logistically and economically, it empowers the people — the very people in the community in need managing the project, creating and distributing the clean water and empowering others by training them, he says.

WaterStep is fundraising at a furious pace. Currently, the nonprofit doesn’t have the funding to keep its several types of water purifiers warehoused — it manufactures them as needed. In addition to the water purifying systems, the group has an order for 40 bleach makers for doctors in Puerto Rico just waiting to be manufactured and shipped.

Hogg said the best way to help WaterStep’s efforts is to help the organization raise money. He also hopes that people with connections in Puerto Rico will connect WaterStep with their networks, as going through official channels has been daunting and slow.

He urges people to pay attention to the news and to how official networks are managing the crisis.

“Keep an eye on the ball of the people and their stories,” he said. “The paradigm has to shift.”