PVA in Puerto Rico
PVA National President David Zurfluh presents a recovery check to Army veteran William Rodriguez during a recent visit to Puerto Rico. (Photo by Christopher Di Virgilio).
PVA Leadership and Staff Visit Puerto Rico Chapter in Aftermath of Hurricanes
PVA President David Zurfluh and Vice President Hack Albertson led a delegation of national staff to Puerto Rico on December 4 through 6 to meet with chapter leadership, check on PVA members and meet with federal officials for an update on recovery efforts in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria which devastated the island in September. Meeting at the chapter office on the day of their arrival, the group heard a presentation about the Puerto Rico Recovery Fund (PRRF) recently established by the Center for a New Economy (CNE). CNE is a non-partisan think-tank that advocates for the development of a new economy for Puerto Rico and created the PRRF to draw in nonprofit and corporate support for rebuilding the island. Jose Oramas with UPS [a PVA corporate supporter], another CNE PRRF partner described some of the work UPS has been doing through PRRF to activate charter flights moving supplies to Puerto Rico. PRRF has set up 11 distribution centers around the island for water, food, hygiene kits, and other material and have delivered 1.4 million pounds of supplies thus far.
December 5th the delegation visited several PVA members in the outskirts of San Juan and mountain areas in the middle of the island. Most of the members with whom the group spoke had power to their homes supplied by generators, but getting water continued to be an issue for almost all with whom they met. The VA Medical Center had established contact with some PVA members, but not others, and only one veteran reported contact with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). In the meeting the day before, several chapter members had expressed varying degrees of frustration in their encounters with the FEMA bureaucracy.
December 6th was devoted to meetings with VA and FEMA officials from the Joint Field Operations center, which is the main office for federal agencies coordinating in Puerto Rico. Dr. Antonio Sanchez, the acting director of the VAMC outlined numerous challenges the hospital confronted in trying to contact and assist veterans after the storm because of the destruction of internet, phone and satellite capacity. Lack of street addresses in the medical center’s patient registry made it difficult, if not impossible, to find many veterans in the more remote areas of the island. Dr. Sanchez observed that the center needs to do better at identifying patients who live alone and include plans for these people in their emergency preparation plans.
Dr. Nadal, the acting chief of the spinal cord injury unit, reported on the efforts VA has undertaken to offer training to other agencies involved in emergency preparation and response. One of the problems mentioned by several members in the visits the day before was difficulty in obtaining vital prescriptions in the immediate aftermath of the storms. The VA had implemented a pharmacy emergency system whereby veterans in rural and hard to reach areas were authorized to obtain prescription drugs from local drug stores. However, many local pharmacies were unfamiliar with this emergency program and were charging the veterans copays and other expenses. Dr. Nadal acknowledged that the VA needed to be more proactive in advertising its resources such as this.
The VA hospital had an open door policy during the emergency to anyone with a spinal cord injury, but the patients they received were considerably sicker than they expected. In addition, many of the 350 veterans with SCI on the VAMC registry were medically stable but most of the emergency shelters were a challenge for patients with spinal cord injury. Dr. Nadal said they ended up sending 15 patients to the mainland because they couldn’t manage patients at all the shelters on the island and felt that more work is needed to develop better shelters for medically stable people with disabilities.
The meeting with FEMA representatives included Madeleine Goldfarb the FEMA Disability Integration Advisor in San Juan, Philip Shaw with the FEMA Volunteer Agencies Liaison (VAL) office and Josephine Carmona whose office is responsible for handling immediate needs of storm survivors. In discussing the apparent lack of contact among PVA members by FEMA, Ms. Goldfarb noted that a FEMA survivor registration number is needed in order for them to send out disaster assistance teams and Ms. Carmona added that they have to depend on local governments to inform them of the locations of people with disabilities, but once that information is provided, FEMA will then send in aid.
The FEMA officials expressed a desire to work more closely with PVA’s chapter to resolve some of the problems that had been raised in the previous days and in the meetings. There also seems to be a need for improvements in the integration of the VA with the overall emergency management system and in its communication with veterans and the community about the resources it has to offer in disasters. At the same time, agencies like FEMA and voluntary organizations need to understand that the VA does not serve all of the needs of veterans with disabilities and, like other people with disabilities, their circumstances need to be taken into account in emergency preparation and response. In the months ahead, PVA plans to map out a set of recommendations for improving emergency preparation and response for its membership as well as the broader community of people with disabilities.
PVA in Puerto Rico
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