JACKSON — Rob McQueen typically just sees the aftermath, the destruction.
It’s rare he’s on the ground before the disaster, at least not immediately prior. It’s rare he sees what a functioning community looks like before it is reduced to rubble.
Then he went to Puerto Rico.
“I remember walking into the hotel on Sept. 19,” said McQueen, a Sun Valley, Idaho, native, “and I remember walking out of the hotel Sept. 20 and seeing a completely different island.”
McQueen, the field operations director for the nonprofit Waves For Water, often spends time on the ground in areas that need humanitarian aid. The organization’s main mission is to provide access to drinking water, specifically through training locals to use a specially designed filter that turns muddy and often disease-riddled liquid into drinkable fluid.
Come mid-September, McQueen and a team were already in the Caribbean, cleaning up in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. They decided to stick it out as Maria took aim at the island.
The Category 5 hurricane destroyed Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that is home to 3.4 million people. Buildings crumbled. Power poles anchored in concrete toppled. Power was out. After a few days grocery stores ran out of supplies. Water became scarce.
“In terms of devastation, it was horrible,” said Bianca Castro, health care administrator for Puerto Rico Medical Administration Services. “This is the hurricane that impacted the whole island. Every corner. There was not an inch of the island that was not destroyed.”
Over the past few weeks McQueen and his team have also served as a connection between areas of needs and available services, including carving a pathway for supplies from Jackson Hole to make it to San Juan, the country’s capital and the site of Puerto Rico Medical Administrative Services, the main trauma center on the island.
Last week, Jackson’s St. John’s Medical Center staff stuffed nearly 30 boxes with sanitizers, catheters, dressings, gauze and gloves for delivery to the island. The supplies have already been dispatched to the rural corners of Puerto Rico and its outlying islands.
The idea to donate came out of the hospital’s sustainability committee, a group that meets to discuss how St. John’s can continue to use its supplies efficiently and effectively. When there’s an overrun of supplies or materials that need to be recycled, the committee looks for an opportunity to donate to other locations.
The discussion spurred Hospital Wellness Director Julia Heemstra to consider a bigger impact than old gowns and bags of saline. She connected with Jon Rose, founder of Waves For Water, and asked for a hospital contact.
Heemstra was eventually connected to Castro, who mostly requested basics. While the San Juan hospital was up and running, many rural communities lacked supplies. The hospital was well positioned to pair up supplies with traveling doctors and move the materials to the far reaches of the island.
Heemstra went to St. John’s CEO Dr. Paul Beaupre and pleaded for funding. She wanted to add to the hospital’s regular order and ship supplies down south.
Beaupre signed off on the project and told her to get a wish list.
“So that’s what I did,” she said.
Late last week 27 boxes reached the Waves For Water ground team, which handles the final miles of delivery. The shipment was shoved into the back of a Honda CRV and arrived at the hospital Friday. Materials have already started moving to outlying communities, Castro said.
“Nothing has stayed here,” Castro said. “We use it or we send it out to people in need.”
Packaged with the shipment were filters from the nonprofit, a supply Castro plans to channel to the many parts of the country still without water. One filter is estimated to provide clean water for 100 people for five years, according to the nonprofit.
Rose estimated 5,000 filters have been distributed across Puerto Rico and seven surrounding islands. They will impact “at least a few hundred thousand” people, he said.
“Clean water is preventive medicine,” he said. “A lot of these places have lost their infrastructure. There are still huge parts of Puerto Rico that don’t have power.”
The San Juan trauma center has been able to stay online, using generators when the power inevitably drops as crews work to restore electricity.
“One thing goes out and then something else goes out, and the next thing you know there’s no electricity. There’s massive flooding,” Rose said. “The first couple days after everyone is in shock. Conditions are horrible. It’s unimaginable. You’ve lost your home. Maybe you’ve in a shelter, maybe you’re in a friend’s house. All of that is real, but it hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s like you’re at a survival camp.”
About a week after the initial shock wears off, emotional breaks begin. But the conditions remain the same. In many areas, electricity is not expected to be back online for six months, Castro said.
“At 53 days from the hurricane there is still a lot of need,” Castro said. “Some people in the rural areas are still without water. A lot of people haven’t even heard from FEMA.”
Heemstra said the donation was one way to combat the helplessness she felt watching the country unravel at the seams.
“Over the last 12 months I’ve really felt helpless when it has come to making a substantive difference in the world. This effort has been the catalyst for me to really understand the difference one person can make by connecting resources, institutions and organizations,” Heemstra said. “I really think we are faced with a time when the only option is a call to action. I hope that this is just the beginning for Jackson.”