Hurricane Heroes

Hurricane Heroes

Faculty, students and staff unite to provide relief to areas hit by natural disaster.

by Stephanie Jimenez

Hurricane Maria
Devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

In 2017, a series of natural disasters threatened the livelihood of people around the country and globe. At John Jay, community members wasted no time in responding quickly to provide immediate relief and assist in long-term recovery efforts.

For Declan Walsh, Director of Community Outreach and Service Learning, mobilizing students to respond was a prerogative that hit close to home. “I personally lived through Hurricane Sandy and lost my house,” he said. “I know how long it can take to recover.” Walsh organized students into an “Unmet Needs” team that collected donations and supplies for populations in affected areas, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Texas, Florida and the Virgin Islands. The disaster relief campaign followed the highly successful Unmet Needs Roundtable Model, which works with trustworthy organizations and government agencies to ensure the distribution of much-needed supplies in affected areas.

The Unmet Needs campaign had a large presence on campus. Throughout the fall semester, dozens of students collected donations like household items and educated their peers about the importance of relief efforts. Camila Santibanez, an international student from Mexico who was involved in planning the campaign, said that she was surprised at the outpouring of donations from members of the College. “Most of the people we talked to would donate some money,” she said. “And every day, people were bringing materials like canned foods and clothes for us to send.”

Help from John Jay College

In November, the relief efforts were taken a step further when students had the opportunity to participate in a series of capacity-building workshops. In addition to learning general response and risk reduction skills through workshops facilitated by the nonprofit organization World Cares, students also took workshops with John Jay’s facilities staff on basic carpentry and painting. The goal was to create a pool of student volunteers with the necessary skills needed to assist with both immediate relief, as well as long-term recovery efforts.

Learning Carpentry in Puerto Rico
Students learn carpentry and painting in disaster relief workshops.

The result of the workshop series was an unprecedented collaboration between Facilities staff members and John Jay students. Staff members Laurence Benson and Jimmy Vroulis led students through building and painting Adirondack chairs in their Carpentry 101 and Painting 101 workshops.

Now, Walsh and other members of the College are identifying the best ways to utilize this brigade of newly trained and passionate student volunteers. One of their early goals was to bring a group of John Jay students to areas affected by disaster, including Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria has left much of the island destroyed. Professor Jodie Roure, who brought a group of over 25 doctors and nurses to Puerto Rico to provide humanitarian aid shortly after the hurricane, has now led such a trip with the help of Professor Gabriela Ramirez-Vargas and Professor José Luis Morín.

Declan Walsh, Director of Community Outreach and Service Learning (center) with Professor Gabriela Ramirez-Vargas (left) and Professor Jodie Roure (right)
Declan Walsh, Director of Community Outreach and Service Learning (center) with Professor Gabriela Ramirez-Vargas (left) and Professor Jodie Roure (right)

Roure, who is an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) fellow in Puerto Rico and has a large social and political network on the island, was an invaluable leader for the student trip, which took place over spring break. Since Hurricane Maria hit, she and Ramirez-Vargas have been working nonstop to alleviate some of the vast devastation on the island. In the months since Roure returned from her first emergency aid trip with the initiative she named Doctors for Maria Relief, she has provided training for other groups to conduct their own relief trips and has set up a website where people can learn how to help. Roure’s impact with Doctors for Maria Relief has been so far-reaching that she has been recognized at the national level, including testifying as an expert before Congress as well as presenting at the Library of Congress.

During the week-long relief trip to Puerto Rico, students worked with several Puerto Rican NGOs to address issues as diverse as reforestation in the rainforest of El Yunque, to economic justice in the predominantly Afro-Latino town of Loíza.

Doctors in Puerto Rico
Doctors for Maria Relief provides medical services to communities in need.

In planning the John Jay student trip to Puerto Rico, Roure and Ramirez-Vargas brought the same energy and enthusiasm that they bring to planning the Doctors for Maria Relief trips. In fact, the two groups traveled to the island at the same time, giving students and medical professionals the opportunity to work together on projects. When students weren’t painting or building, they helped the medical teams by carrying water or IV bags. Several John Jay alumni joined the Doctors for Maria Relief brigade, meaning that alumni and students even had the opportunity to work side by side and share their passion for
helping others.

Doctors in Puerto RicoAccording to Roure and Walsh, student interest in disaster relief and recovery has skyrocketed since last semester. To make sure students continue to have opportunities to respond to disaster, Walsh has formed the new Disaster Relief Team, comprising a group of dedicated students who are trained in providing relief and engaging in volunteerism on and off campus. Many of these students have personal reasons for their involvement, whether because of their own experience surviving a disaster, or because of relatives and friends in places affected. Aastha Vorhas, a senior who spent time last semester soliciting donations from her peers as part of the Unmet Needs campaign, remembers when her community was affected by Hurricane Sandy. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” she said. “We have to support people in need.”

“Students are starved to do something tangible to help,” said Walsh. “For many of them, it directly relates to what they want to do in the future. Many of our students are interested in working for FEMA and this has a direct correlation to that career.”

Dennis Piedra, who is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Emergency Management, is one of those students who envision working for FEMA one day. For Piedra, it was after he responded to the 9/11 attacks that he realized that responding to emergencies was his calling. He also traveled to Puerto Rico to provide relief after Hurricane Maria, where he worked for 12 days, from early in the morning to 10:00 at night. “We were helping people with basic necessities,” he said.
“They weren’t ready for this kind of catastrophe.”

Volunteers in Puerto Rico
Volunteers go door to door in hard-to-reach flooded areas.

Walsh wants to ensure that more students have the opportunity to respond to emergencies and put their passion for service into practice, whether in Puerto Rico or elsewhere in the world. With the College’s support, he plans to take students on relief trips to different parts of the globe so they can utilize their skills in disaster relief, and have access to international learning opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have on campus. For him, sending students on these trips is paramount to fulfilling the College’s mission. “At John Jay, we educate for justice,” he said. “Disaster relief is part of that. It’s what students want to do.”

Educating to respond

Dennis Piedra
Dennis Piedra is pursuing a master’s degree in Emergency Management.

The Department of Security, Fire and Emergency Management at John Jay is committed to educating students to respond to natural and man-made disasters. The department offers multiple undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificates in the area of emergency management and public safety, including a B.A. in Fire and Emergency Service, an M.S. in Emergency Management, an Advanced Certificate in Emergency Management Studies and more