As you enter the town of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, signs welcoming you call it “La Ciudad Que Crece” or “the city that grows.”
Since Hurricane Maria, the best example of growth in the town has been when some normality returns – when power or water is restored, or when a needed community resource reopens.
The Arecibo Vet Center reopened its doors to area Veterans this week, almost a month after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The storm’s destructive winds and torrential rains left the town without power or water and with water damage in parts of the center’s office.
The reopening is the latest sign that VA operations in Puerto Rico are slowly returning to normal. Maria left the majority of the island without water or power. Almost a month after the storm, less than 20 percent of the island’s population has had power restored.
Arecibo’s Vet Center provides counseling, outreach and referral services for Veterans living in a 60-mile radius of the coastal town, which is about an hour drive from San Juan. Since the storm, the Vet Center has been operating out of a mobile unit on the grounds of the Aricebo Community Based Outpatient Clinic, which was also heavily damaged by flooding.
According to Arecibo Vet Center director Elizabeth Gutierrez-Ortiz, the center now has power and water, but is still operating at a reduced capacity.
“We have water, power and air conditioning now, but we have no communications,” she said. Several rooms in the back of the Vet Center were also damaged by water coming in from second floor windows that were blown in by the storm.
That’s not going to stop the center’s counselors and outreach specialists from offering area Veterans the services they need, especially in light of the disaster.
“This has been very hard for some of our Veterans,” Gutierrez-Ortiz said. “The damage, the military helicopters, sometimes even diesel fumes from generators can cause flashbacks for some.”
Island Vet Centers are also working to help their clients in ways they don’t usually do.
“So many people lost everything during the storm,” said Vet Center social worker Lesley Jimenez-Diaz. “They need food and water. Some are homeless. We have to be flexible in situations like this, so we’re working with FEMA and other agencies to help our Veterans.”
For Gutierrez-Ortiz, reopening the Vet Center is a relief.
“At least now I’ll know what’s happening with my Veterans.”
All other Vet Centers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands except for the Ponce Vet Center are operating as usual. The Ponce center is working out of a Mobile Vet Center vehicle at the Community Based Outpatient Clinic in that town.