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USA Today Article: ‘A lot of panic attacks’: Mental health top concern in Maria-ravaged Puerto Rico

Rick Jervis, USA Today
Original story from:

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 long-term mental trauma of Puerto Ricans in the wake of Maria 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 like Jayuya even more cut off from the rest of the world. More than half of the island still doesn’t have power and around 10% don’t have clean running water.

Stress often sets in as storm survivors transition from securing basic needs, like food and water, 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’s Mailman School of Public Health

“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, such as Jayuya, officials at Ponce Health Sciences University in nearby Ponce began deploying teams of doctors, psychologists and public health specialists into the mountains days after the storm. The private medical university has taken a leading role in recovery in the area and the teams have seen more than 6,000 patients since the storm.

On a recent trip, a convoy of doctors, administrators and university students drove more than an hour through winding mountain roads still being cleared of storm debris and mudslides to reach the community center in the Mameyes neighborhood of Jayuya. The area has been without power or water since Maria.

Inside the center, stacks of bottled water and untouched military Meals Ready to Eat sat at one end of the darkened building. At the other, a team of public health students urged locals to wear long pants and close-toed 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 checked locals’ blood pressure and noted medical histories, then added a few extra questions: Are you sad? Trouble sleeping? Hand tremors? Anxiety? Those with signs of anxiety or stress 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 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 impact and help these people regain some hope.”

Eva Medina, 34, who lost her home in the storm, visited the Jayuya center to treat debilitating back pain but was also 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.”

After a few hours at the center, some members of the team drove further up the mountain to visit the family of Hector Vargas. Vargas and his brother lost their homes during Maria and the entire extended family — all 11 members — moved into a half-built home they were in the process of building for their elderly mother.

The family members sleep on mattresses, five to a room, with a zinc roof and unplastered walls that leak during rainstorms. A strong mudslide could wipe the home off its mountaintop perch and send it crashing to the valley below. They desperately need help fixing the more permanent homes battered by Maria. The mental stress of living in such close and unsafe quarters is wearing on the family, Vargas said.

Vargas and his brother applied for FEMA aid about a month ago but haven’t heard from the federal agency, he said.

“We’re waiting to see if they can lend us a hand,” he said. “I hope to God they can help us.”


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