Children shelters devastated by Hurricane Maria: A reflection on their harrowing experience, how to protect kids amid future disasters

September 25, 2018, 10:23:33 AM EDT

By Yanitza A. Cruz

Marcos Santana Andújar has spent his entire life in shelters. His first experience was as a child with his mother, who is a survivor of domestic violence. Now, as an adult, he continues in the shelters, but this time as director of the Network of Shelters, Institutions and Centers for Minors of Puerto Rico (RAICEM).

In the shelters, he has noticed two things. The first is that we must magnify the voices for the rights of children, specifically those who suffer situations of violence. The second is that it is necessary that children have another chance to live life as he did.

Hurricane Maria showed a third aspect: The government, in situations of emergencies such as natural disasters, "does not include within its priorities the children's shelters."

Puerto Rico Shelters

Casa de Todos, in Juncos, was one of the shelters with the most structural damage. The winds tore off the roof made of zinc. (Photo/Yanitza A. Cruz)

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"After Hurricane Maria, we realized the biggest vulnerabilities that our children had. What we were doing in our organization was very necessary, but we were not visible to the government," said Santana.

At the end of last year, the Department of Family Affairs reported 16,000 cases of abuse, an increase of 1,000 cases in relation to the previous year.

"We awarded it to that last quarter, the hurricane quarter, and there was no good communication. There was no telecommunications and the only way [to alert] was by telephone. Imagine the magnitude of the problem of violence ... how many abuse referrals were left without being being announced?" he questioned.

After the hurricane, the referrals of mistreatment increased and in the same way more children began to arrive in the shelters.

The experience during María

(Photo/ Yanitza A. Cruz)

Casa de Todos.

(Photo/ Yanitza A. Cruz)

Nuestra Señora Fátima.

(Photo/ Yanitza A. Cruz)

Nuestra Señora Fátima.

(Photo/ Yanitza A. Cruz)

Damage at the "Casa de Todos" shelter.

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Of the 104 shelters, centers and institutions that RAICEM impacts, three were the most affected by the ravages of the hurricane: "Casa de todos" in Juncos, "Hogar Colegio La Milagrosa" in Arecibo and "Forjadores de Esperanza" in Bayamón. From roofs, walls and windows to beds, recreation areas and toys, everything was affected by the cyclone.

"When I arrived at the shelter of Bayamón ["Forjadores de Esperanza"], it was an impressive thing... It was to see the children who had nothing in their lives, trying to process that they lost the only safe space they had," recalled Santana.

Another shelter that also received structural damage was "Nuestra Señora Fátima" in Bayamón. In Nuestra Señora Fátima, which housed 17 girls between the ages of 11 and 17, the winds affected the windows, doors, canvas curtains and the roof of the parking lot. The road was also crowded with trees, which delayed entry and exit for several days.

"We had difficulty when restocking food. When we went to seek for help, they gave us only a box of food with a gallon of water and we were 30," said the director of Nuestra Señora Fátima and co-founder of RAICEM, Damara González.

A guide to protect children in shelters amid future disasters

Puerto Rico Shelters

Damara González,director of Nuestra Señora Fátima, talks about the initiatives they have developed after Hurricane Maria. (Photo/ Yanitza A. Cruz)

One year after the hurricane, RAICEM created the first Guide for the Protection of Children and Adolescents in Emergency Situations or Disasters. The guide, created in collaboration with experts in different subjects, exposes everything they did before, during and after the hurricane and provides recommendations for the protection of the rights of children and adolescents in emergency situations or disasters.

Some of the recommendations are to limit children's access to the media to protect them from images or descriptions of the hurricane that may increase the level of anxiety, avoid conversations between adults about the phenomenon in the presence of children and keep a daily routine to maintain order and control in the face of the adversity that a hurricane can generate.

This practical tool, which can be implemented at family, community and national levels, has been presented in various forums to train people on practical actions to protect minors in emergency situations. "Our mission is to save children's lives; that's why we exist. That's why the hostels exist," said Santana.

"One thing that sustained us throughout the recovery process was the ability of children to have resilience. One day, I see the neighbors working and behind them were the children dancing to the rhythm of the 'trimmer,' the pick, the shovel. An impressive experience, the resilience of the children, the ability of [them to] recover supported us," he recalled.

To support the work done by this non-profit organization, you can donate your time by registering as a volunteer at your resource bank. You can also make donations in cash or items that you need, which they post on the Facebook page under the name of Red De Albergues, Instituciones y Centros para Menores De Puerto Rico.

Editor's note: This project was a mention of honor in the AccuWeather Environmental Journalism Scholarship.

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