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A Shopping Cart of Hope

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How did we deliver more than 3,500 pounds of food and water to an isolated community in central Puerto Rico cut off from the rest of the island due to a collapsed bridge? The obvious answer is by helicopter, but when the only safe place to land is a mile away from the town and the vehicles needed to transport the supplies are out of gas, what then?

A shopping cart turned out to be the key.

But this was no ordinary shopping cart. The people of Rio Abajo, a community in Utuado, put their ingenuity to use by creating a pulley system with the cart to span the void left by the collapsed bridge.

The pulley system helps locals ferry supplies across the river in Rio Abajo, Utuado.
The pulley system helps locals ferry supplies across the river in Rio Abajo, Utuado. (Photo Credit: FEMA Jocelyn Norman)
After identifying the shopping cart as the best way to get the fuel across the river, members of Homeland Security Investigations Special Response Teams loaded the cart with the gasoline and sent it to the other side. With fuel transported via shopping cart, the residents were able to refuel the vehicles and pick up the pallets of FEMA food and water delivered by the helicopters and transport it back to the community.

The problems affecting the central portion of Puerto Rico were interwoven on every level imaginable. The 155 mile per hour winds snapped the electrical poles, wood and concrete alike. Bridges collapsed. Without electricity, generators powering the water treatment facilities ceased working. The rainy season worsened road conditions as additional rain brought new mudslides faster than people could clear them. The mountainous terrain, while beautiful, exacerbated every issue. Many communities in the region were cut off from food and water distribution points, doctors, family, phone service…from everywhere.

HSI SRT Special Agents unload water in Rio Abajo, Utuado.
HSI SRT Special Agents unload water in Rio Abajo, Utuado. (Photo Credit: FEMA Eliud Echevarria)

It was easy to understand why the Central Island Coordination Task Force met three times a day. Every day at 7 a.m., 2 p.m., and 6:30 p.m., we assembled emergency response workers with specialties in debris removal, sheltering and feeding, medical services, air operations, logistics, and communications; they joined representatives from the Governor’s office, Homeland Security Investigations, Urban Search and Rescue, and the U.S. Army.

Field staff uploaded infrastructure statuses into apps that allowed everyone to see updates in real-time, crucial to identifying new isolated areas. As teams removed debris, commodities moved by ground. As mudslides closed the roads, commodities were loaded into helicopters.

Members of the Central Island Task Force return from delivering and distributing commodities in Lares, Puerto Rico.
Members of the Central Island Task Force return from delivering and distributing commodities in Lares, Puerto Rico. (Courtesy Photo)

Temporary bridges are in progress, non-profit organizations have installed solar powered generators for water systems in communities in Caguas and Orocovis, and, in Utuado they retired their shopping cart pulley-system and will soon be using a newly constructed provisional bridge. Not only will the bridge provide residents with a means of leaving, but it will allow work to begin on the wastewater plant.

The complexity of the situation mandated an unprecedented response by everyone. The answers aren’t always as fast or as permanent as we would like, but in the words of Voltaire, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

People are constantly working on the recovery process – from communities making a ladder to cross a riverbed where a bridge used to be, to voluntary agencies working together to bring generators for water systems back online, to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers building provisional bridges and clearing roads, to the federal family providing commodities, funding, and organizational structure.

It is, as it always will be, a team effort, a nation coming together.  Puerto Rico, se levanta.

Last Updated: 
01/11/2018 - 12:35

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