Today at Berkeley Lab

EHS’s Jenna McKenzie Steps Up to Help Puerto Rico Hurricane Victims

— By Keri Troutman

Jenna McKenzie, a deputy biosafety officer in Berkeley Lab’s EH&S division, had never been to Puerto Rico or experienced the devastation of a major hurricane, but when a Puerto Rican friend was affected by Hurricane Maria’s wrath, she was moved to help with aid efforts. McKenzie spent a week in Puerto Rico in December and continues to assist a nonprofit group based there—she says there’s still plenty of work to do and she plans to return within the next few months.

“What made this hurricane particularly devastating to Puerto Rico is the path it took—it basically went right down the middle of the island, cutting the main power transmission lines,” says McKenzie. When McKenzie visited in December, about three months after Hurricane Maria hit, power was still out in most of the territory and communities were relying on diesel and gas generators to power a few key systems. McKenzie traveled to 62 of the 78 Puerto Rican municipalities, helping assess what communities were in need of most—there was wide variation across the island, but a commonality was the lack of power.

“Most of Puerto Rico’s power comes from oil, natural gas, and coal,” says McKenzie. “And those resources are not available on the island—they have to ship them in.”

Shipping has also been particularly challenging for Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. Immediately after the hurricane hit, most of Puerto Rico’s ports were closed and there was a backlog in shipping. Supplies were scarce and the situation was further complicated by a law that requires all ships arriving in Puerto Rico to originate in the U.S., says McKenzie. “But airports were up and running, so I worked with some of my colleagues in EH&S to put together boxes of supplies and sent them airmail—they arrived quickly and people really appreciated them.”

“Priority mail quickly became the perfect choice for getting things to Puerto Rico fast,” says McKenzie. She and her friends and coworkers put together more than 40 boxes full of nutrient-dense foods and essential supplies scarce in Puerto Rico at the time, such as batteries and diapers. “I’m still using priority mail to send things to nonprofit groups in Puerto Rico because they continue to struggle with getting things shipped directly.”

The nonprofit McKenzie has been involved with formed in part out of the necessity of getting supplies to Puerto Rico via ship—the Sail Relief Team began with a group of friends wanting to do something to help Puerto Rico after Maria hit. Sail Relief Team loaded up their sailboat with much-needed supplies and fresh food and embarked on the voyage from Florida to Puerto Rico. They visited a number of ports along the southern coast of Puerto Rico and then found that the community in most dire need of their assistance was Vieques, a small picturesque island municipality off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast. The 9,000 inhabitants of Vieques had lost all power when the hurricane cut off their supply from the mainland and hadn’t received much aid.

Sail Relief Team has been working with nonprofits and universities in Puerto Rico ever since, focusing on cleanup and restoration of community services, but also working hard to get Puerto Rico set up with more solar energy sources. McKenzie says that many of the parts needed for solar setups—inverters and batteries—are still really difficult to get in or shipped to Puerto Rico. This is where she’s been able to continue to help by sending things via priority mail.

“If there’s any silver lining in this experience, maybe its seeing Puerto Rican push towards harnessing wind and solar energies that would help make them more resilient in future natural disasters,” McKenzie says. “The people I met there were all very community-minded; they really care about one another and they are very resilient.”