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Wanda Santiago and Bill Clinton.
Wanda Santiago and Bill Clinton. ([email protected])

The government, the private sector, non-profit organizations, and citizens need to put into practice the lessons from Hurricanes Irma and María to properly respond to the current emergency triggered by the earthquakes.

As part of that response, restoring or building new homes and schools, among other infrastructure, must be a priority as well as reopening small and medium-sized businesses and working on community leadership training.

That was the consensus yesterday at the opening of the Fifth Summit of the Clinton Global Initiative Action Network on Post-Disaster Recovery, which continues today.

"A couple of years ago when this was established in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and María, we knew we wanted to be helpful and to be flexible in doing it, so we could both help with the immediate needs and to advance long term recovery and resilience ... and the inevitable future disasters, we didn't realize how inevitable and how short the future would be when we started. We all know that for several weeks that the people of Puerto Rico in the southwest have been enduring a recent series of earthquakes and aftershocks that destroyed homes and infrastructure and left residents living in distress and fear. I'm grateful for the work members of this action network have done to respond and especially for the heroic work that the community leaders and networks have done to put the lessons learned from María to work for their neighbors," said former US President Bill Clinton, who moderated the plenary session "Accelerating the Road to Recovery."

Christine Nieves, co-founder, and president of Emerge Puerto Rico, who highlighted the work of the third sector after the earthquake were among those participating in the panel.

Nieves said that the third sector has emerged from a lack of action from the government, which should take care of the people who are still dealing with the losses from Hurricane María. "We are doing the government's job because nothing is moving fast," she said.

She added that it is urgent to address issues related to the demolition of structures and debris removal in those towns affected by the earthquakes; implement a mortgage moratorium for those who lost their homes and help community leaders in their efforts to bring their neighborhoods back to normal.

Nancy Negrón, vice president of Hispanics in Philanthropy, said, "We need to change the narrative of corruption because it keeps us away from the most basic needs." She referred to expressions such as those by President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized the island's politicians for allegedly misusing recovery and other federal funds.

Negrón said that after changing that narrative, "we have to come up with a 'homecoming plan' for Puerto Rico," as was done in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "We must address the economic stability of families and small businesses, and these will be the ones that create jobs ... and bring the people back home. And we have to get our children back to schools," Negrón added.

Wanda Santiago, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Microenterprises and Agricultural Technologies in Yauco, agreed with her, by saying that as part of the recovery, local contractors and the local workforce should be included because it will result in economic development for the region.

Violence prevention

Before the opening session, there were five executive sessions, one of which addressed how to prevent violence in disaster recovery with a community approach.

"Violence is a preventable behavior," said Karen Volker of Cure Violence Global, an organization that addresses violence from an epidemiological perspective.

Volker said that at the organization they act as if violence were a contagious disease, identifying and interrupting, changing the behaviors of those at risk, and changing community norms. "Violence does not have to be accepted, and every violent act that does not happen changes the expectation of violence in a community," she added.

Tania Rosario, from Taller Salud, indicated that the work of this entity based in Loíza has focused on two values: sustainability and participation.  She added that Hurricanes Irma and María have demonstrated the need for a national protocol to assist those who have survived gender violence during emergencies.

"There was a total collapse of the protection system and that is unacceptable. There has to be a protocol so that survivors know where to go and who to contact in advance," she said.

Meanwhile, Kaegan Mays-Williams of Every Town for Gun Safety stressed that the suicide probability increases after a natural disaster and that access to firearms further increases that risk. She, therefore, urged local governments to adopt public policies that restrict access to guns.

During the session, they announced a "commitment to action" between the Action Network and LASCO Chin Foundation to develop a pilot project in a high school in Jamaica, to address and prevent gang violence.

The Network makes new commitments with multiple partners during each summit. These are specific, measurable projects that address critical issues in the region. The Network experts help identify areas that need the greatest impact, the organization coordinates efforts to avoid duplication, connects different sectors, shares lessons learned, and works with local leaders to develop more resilient approaches and practices.