Providing Disaster Relief in Puerto Rico


SEIU 1021 member Jason Negron Gonzales and his medical brigade in Puerto Rico.

Jason Negron Gonzales has worked as a nurse in the Emergency Room at San Francisco General Hospital for over six years. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in October, Jason was glued to the news.

It became clear to him that things were becoming worse, not better. “I’m Puerto Rican. I’m a nurse. I knew I had to help. I bought myself a ticket and went,” said Jason.

When he arrived in Puerto Rico, Jason connected with a medical brigade from the College of Doctors and Surgeons of Puerto Rico. Their team of doctors and nurses was dispatched to Utuado, a small mountain town. There they found many elderly individuals, living with no power, no water, no communication to the outside world, and few other resources. Bridges were washed out, and roads were impassible due to mudslides. “It was a public health catastrophe,” stated Jason.

Jason and his team brought medicine and supplies to the people, and did everything they could to tend to them during the week he was there.

Much of the power grid in Puerto was knocked out by the hurricane, and Jason noted that even recently 60% of the island was still without power. He relayed that members of the energy utility union had been fighting with the government for years to improve the power system, but government officials have been selling off public infrastructure to privatized companies. “The government is trying to take advantage of this situation, as are corporations that will benefit from the rebuilding. Their goal is to make money, not build a sustainable infrastructure for the people,” said Jason.

Even though professional staff warned against it, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency hadn’t signed off on it, The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority signed a taxpayer-funded $300 million contracting scheme with an inexperienced 2-person company called Whitefish to rebuild its electric grid destroyed in the hurricane. The work was shoddy, people cried foul, and the politically connected firm’s no-bid contract was cancelled under pressure. People saw it for what it was: political graft and a theft of public funds.

Corporations have become increasingly emboldened in an era where they are shielded from having to release financial information to keep themselves accountable. In a move calculated long ago by extreme right wing interests, public servants were made the enemy, and public agencies were gutted, making meaningful oversight of public contracting nearly impossible. The result is that we see contracts like Whitefish happening.

“I felt proud to be able to go down and serve. The union movement is playing a key role in rebuilding Puerto Rico,” said Jason. While he was there, the Teachers Union was fighting to re-open the schools, and at the same time running massive humanitarian brigades bringing food and water to people, using chainsaws to cut up debris and clear the roads, and helping rebuild damaged homes and other structures.

The work of individual Puerto Ricans helping their neighbors was really leveraged by organized unions coming in and magnifying that work with their resources and networks. “The potential is that through unions and social organizations we can get something better for the people, said Jason.

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