Af­ter Maria, ‘panic at­tacks, cry­ing’

Puerto Rico suf­fers emo­tional toll, too

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Rick Jervis Ir­win Redlener

JAYUYA, Puerto Rico – Peo­ple who visit a lo­cal com­mu­nity cen­ter here for bot­tled wa­ter or hot cof­fee of­ten break down cry­ing or shak­ing un­con­trol­lably.

Margie Vazquez, a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer who lost her home to Hur­ri­cane Maria seven weeks ago, of­ten cries at home be­fore head­ing to the cen­ter to help oth­ers. When mem­bers of the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency first showed up a few weeks ago with pal­lets of wa­ter, many peo­ple started cry­ing, she said.

“A lot of panic at­tacks, a lot of cry­ing,” Vazquez said. “There’s a lot of suf­fer­ing right now.”

Peo­ple in this storm-rav­aged moun­tain town still need wa­ter, elec­tric­ity, hot meals and new roofs.

But in­creas­ingly they also need help man­ag­ing the anx­i­ety and trauma that have seeped into their lives since Maria tore through here Sept. 20, de­mol­ish­ing homes and up­end­ing lives.

The storm de­stroyed 157 homes in Vazquez’s neigh­bor­hood alone, she said.

Deal­ing with the longterm men­tal trauma of Puerto Ri­cans in Maria’s af­ter­math, is be­com­ing a grow­ing con­cern for dis­as­ter of­fi­cials in the is­land’s re­cov­ery. The storm killed at least 55 peo­ple, de­stroyed thou­sands of homes and left re­mote moun­tain towns such as Jayuya even more cut off from the rest of the world. More than half of the is­land still doesn’t have power and about 10% don’t have clean run­ning wa­ter.

Stress of­ten sets in as storm sur­vivors tran­si­tion from se­cur­ing ba­sic needs, to longer-term thoughts of where to live and how to re­build their homes, said Ir­win Redlener, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Dis­as­ter Pre­pared­ness at Columbia Univer­sity.

“Peo­ple are ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble right now” in Puerto Rico, he said. “Vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one needs some as­sis­tance to get through this.”

To help peo­ple in harder-to-reach com­mu­ni­ties, of­fi­cials at Ponce Health Sciences Univer­sity be­gan de­ploy­ing teams of doc­tors, psy­chol­o­gists and pub­lic health spe­cial­ists into the moun­tains. Teams have seen more than 6,000 pa­tients since the storm.

In­side the com­mu­nity cen­ter in the Mameyes neigh­bor­hood of Jayuya, stacks of bot­tled wa­ter and un­touched mil­i­tary Meals Ready to Eat sit at one end of the dark­ened build­ing. At the other, a team of pub­lic health stu­dents urge lo­cals to wear long pants and clos­e­toed shoes if wad­ing into a river to wash clothes, or add a few drops of un­scented Clorox to wa­ter be­fore drink­ing.

At an in­take ta­ble, univer­sity work­ers check lo­cals’ blood pres­sure and noted med­i­cal his­to­ries, then add a few ques­tions: Are you sad? Trou­ble sleep­ing? Hand tremors? Anx­i­ety? Those with signs of anx­i­ety were di­rected to a psy­chol­o­gist in the rear of the cen­ter.

Help­ing lo­cals over­come stress and trauma has be­come a key func­tion of the school’s role in re­cov­ery, said Kenira Thomp­son, vice pres­i­dent of re­search at the

“Peo­ple are ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble right now. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one needs some as­sis­tance.”

univer­sity.

“It’s es­sen­tial. Peo­ple need to have the men­tal health in or­der to re­gain some sem­blance of nor­malcy,” she said. “If you don’t get a grip on acute stress, that could spi­ral into other things that could be­come po­ten­tially in­ca­pac­i­tat­ing. We need to have a way to help these peo­ple re­gain some hope.”

Eva Me­d­ina, 34, who lost her home, vis­ited the Jayuya cen­ter to treat back pain but also was hop­ing to talk to some­one about the stress of los­ing her home.

“I’m de­pressed,” said Me­d­ina, who along with her 13-year-old son moved in with her par­ents af­ter the storm.

“Each time (we) talk about this sub­ject, it’s painful. You could see ev­ery­thing you had and now you have noth­ing.”

Res­i­dents of Jayuya lis­ten to aid work­ers who came from nearby Ponce, Puerto Rico, to of­fer help and in­for­ma­tion.

Eva Me­d­ina has her blood pres­sure checked at a com­mu­nity cen­ter in the Mameyes neigh­bor­hood of Jayuya, where a tem­po­rary clinic pro­vides ba­sic med­i­cal ser­vices. PHO­TOS BY JASPER COLT/USA TO­DAY

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