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Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico's damaged infrastructure is putting its most vulnerable residents at risk

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It may have been nearly two weeks since Hurricane Maria unleashed its wrath on about 3.4 million Puerto Ricans, but most of the U.S. territory's infrastructure remains debilitated. That's causing problems for organizations like the Instituto Psicopedagogico De Puerto Rico (IPPR), a nonprofit that offers critical life services to 108 adults diagnosed with acute or severe intellectual disabilities.

Rudi Sanchez, IPPR's chairman of the board of trustees, said that the more than 175 employees are essential to the daily operations of the organization since they provide 24/7 assistance to those who are unable to care for themselves. But inaccessible roads and power outages are making it difficult for employees to travel to work.

"They're all over the island. Having them get to the institution and do their jobs has been complicated. If we don't get the employees back, the risk increases."
Rudi Sanchez

Rudi explained that the employees do everything from run the infirmary and kitchen, to help residents eat and shower. Operating the IPPR without them not only creates logistical challenges, but disturbs the sense of normalcy that residents have grown accustomed to.

Despite its staffing shortage, IPPR is considered to be a part of the fortunate five percent that has access to electricity and drinking water. Infrastructure damage exists across the six-acre campus, but Rudi said he's more concerned about the residents' families -- many of whom aren't so lucky to have access to food, water and shelter.

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That's why IPPR launched a crowdfunding page. According to the website, IPPR raised nearly $4,000 in just six days, which, Rudi said would help alleviate some of the financial burden on the family members of its residents.

"We are foreseeing that some participants, that their families have been significantly affected by the storm and they're going to have issues to pay for the services that we are providing, so we need to have some cushion there, " he explained. "It's 100 percent going to be for the benefit of the participants."

According to a recent White House memo disclosed by Axios, about 55 percent of Puerto Ricans don't have access to drinking water. Progress has been made in terms of opening grocery stores and gas stations, but widespread electrical issues and the inability to distribute millions of ready-to-eat meals continue to create problems for many on the island.

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"Lack of power and the persistent commodity distribution problems on the island are major focuses right now," White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said in the memo. "This is still an urgent situation."

The government is needed now more than ever, Rudi explained to Circa, since about 50 percent of its participants are under the care of the Puerto Rico Department of Health. But that dependency also has Rudi worried. The need for massive statewide relief could deplete the government's budget -- allocating funds to some organizations, but not others.

With President Trump's arrival on the U.S. territory on Tuesday, Rudi hopes that the government reverses what he sees as a history of providing unequal health care funding Puerto Rico. According to the Puerto Rico Healthcare Crisis Coalition, the island receives half the rate of federal health care funding compared to the U.S. mainland. That could create problems for the nearly 68 percent of Puerto Ricans who receive their care through Medicare or Medicaid.

"In general Puerto Rico has been treated differently than the mainland U.S. in terms of Medicare, Medicaid and those programs. That needs to change. We're American citizens. We just happen to live on an island called Puerto Rico, but other than that, there's no difference whatsoever, and we get less funding through those programs."
Rudi Sanchez

Rudi urged Americans to keep Puerto Rico in their thoughts well after the spotlight of Trump's visit fades. The need for relief, he added, will continue for months and even years.

"Puerto Rico needs a lot of help and that help is going to be monetary. It's going to be hands available to provide help directly. It's going to be through policy changes. it's going to be through many different levels," he said.

For more Circa coverage, check out these stories:
A report reveals about 80% of online ads for puppies are 'fake'
These foster kids got the ultimate sleepover after Hurricane Irma
Here are five ways to avoid becoming a victim of disaster fraud

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