Nearly a year to the day Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, devastating the U.S. commonwealth and its people, a New Mexico State University assistant professor shared some of the preliminary findings of her study on the mental health of aid workers who are still working to help residents.
Ivelisse Torres Fernandez, an assistant professor in the Counseling and Educational Psychology department at New Mexico State University’s College of Education, is a native of Puerto Rico. Shortly after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Torres Fernandez began fundraising efforts to help Puerto Ricans in need of food, water, batteries and other goods. She also began a yearlong study in March focusing on the mental health of those who not only provided aid to storm victims, but who were also victims of Hurricane Maria.
“I started to collect data and it was hard to do, because there was not going to be a perfect time to do it. The emotions are still raw,” Torres Fernandez said. “The emotional wounds this horrible storm left are intense.”
Hurricane Maria was a Category 4 storm when it hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. It is regarded as the worst Atlantic hurricane since 2004, and on Aug. 28 Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello raised the U.S. territory’s official death toll from 64 to 2,975 after an independent study, according to the Associated Press.
Torres Fernandez made her third trip to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria in July, and said although she is seeing progress, it has been “painfully slow.” So far, Torres Fernandez has completed her first round of interviews, talking to 15 people including first responders, healthcare workers, community leaders and private citizens who have assisted in relief efforts. Out of the 15, 10 have been women. The first group ranged in age from 18 to 71. Torres Fernandez is planning to conduct a second round of interviews, mainly with mental health professionals.
“I’m asking them what it was like to have been impacted by the storm and having to provide emotional support and psychological help to others. How did they cope,” Torres Fernandez said.
One surprising thing she learned was that in helping others, aid workers healed themselves. By providing support and assistance to those who are still experiencing depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and post-traumatic stress disorder, it has helped them cope and find some relief.
“On a personal level, that’s how I’ve been healing,” said Torres Fernandez. She was not in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria but her family, who still live on the island, experienced the storm and its after-effects. Torres Fernandez said residents are still suffering from anxiety whenever it rains, and anxiety has been heightened during this year’s hurricane season.
Torres Fernandez said that by talking to mental health professionals next, she hopes to take a closer look at whether they are experiencing compassion fatigue and whether they have adopted any self care strategies to help them cope. She also wants to explore other consequences of the hurricane such as health issues that occurred after residents were forced to rely on canned food for survival, and the limited access to quality health care.
In talking to her first group of interviewees, Torres Fernandez found that although aid workers were emotionally impacted by the experience, adopting a positive outlook has helped them through tough, emotional times.
“One woman told me, ‘We are broken, but we are not defeated. We will rise again,’” Torres Fernandez said, her eyes welling with tears. “This speaks to the resilience of the people of Puerto Rico. Keeping a positive outlook on life makes a difference.”
Participants also raised concerns about the federal aid response versus the local response. Although participants positively rated the response at the municipal level, the majority of participants believe both the federal and local government didn’t do a good job, Torres Fernandez said. The concerns about the federal and local response has led residents to distrust federal and local agencies, and to adopt more significant hurricane preparation measures such as storing enough food and water to last two months, and to buy significant amounts of batteries and power generators.
Before starting her research, Torres Fernandez spearheaded donation efforts to collect clothing, food, batteries, school supplies and money to benefit Puerto Rico. To date, those donations have helped students in three schools and the residents of an assisted living facility, along with several residents in rural areas.
Ivelisse Torres Fernandez, an assistant professor at New Mexico State University, eats lunch with a group of students in Puerto Rico after delivering donations of school supplies. Torres Fernandez, a native of Puerto Rico, is researching the mental health of aid workers who helped Puerto Rican residents during Hurricane Maria in September 2017. (NMSU photo courtesy of Ivelisse Torres Fernandez
A group of students in Puerto Rico pose for a photo with New Mexico State University assistant professor Ivelisse Torres Fernandez while holding school supplies donated by the Las Cruces and NMSU communities. Torres Fernandez, a native of Puerto Rico, has made three trips to the island since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and its residents in September 2017. (NMSU photo courtesy of Ivelisse Torres Fernandez)
New Mexico State University assistant professor Ivelisse Torres Fernandez, right, delivered donations to an assisted living facility in Puerto Rico in July. Torres Fernandez, a native of Puerto Rico, has been a part of relief efforts to assist island residents still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Maria, which struck the island on Sept. 20, 2017. (NMSU photo courtesy of Ivelisse Torres Fernandez)