"If there's no help coming, then you better act because what's lost is hope." -Mark Martin Bras
"That gives people hope to know that there's a plan, to know that there are other people they can count on during that time. And that leads to sustainability too." -Kelly Thompson
Hurricane Maria, 2017- named "the worst natural disaster" and the "deadliest" in the history of Dominica, Saint Croix, and Puerto Rico. The island of Vieques was one of those who experienced this devastating nightmare. What can we learn from the way they engineered their way to recovery despite a lack of supplies, shortage of funds and manpower, power failure, unavailability of the internet, and isolated location? In this episode, Jennifer interviews Mark Martin Bras and Kelly Thompson from Viequeslove, a non-profit organization focused on helping the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Listen in as they share vital lessons about communication failures, advocating for your community, increasing resiliency, and building capacity. They also explain why sometimes, you need to say "No." to organizations extending help, and how to build regional equity. We all have a role to play in a disaster. As our guests say, "It's a world thing!"
- 04:01: When The Power Fails on an Island
- 13:24: Build the Capacity
- 21:03: Bringing the Internet Into an Island
- 31:43: Handling Shelter Needs
- 37:48: How to Advocate Your Community
- 48:41: Encourage Sectors Ethical Participation
- 55:11: The Hard Side of Preparedness
- 01:02:50: Humanity at its Finest
02:49: "We can't force our systems on to something else and be totally successful. You can bring tools, you can adapt tools, but the biggest successes come from seeing the problem in front of you and then using your creativity in order to solve those problems in ways that are relevant and effective." -Jennifer Thompson
12:06: "No matter how many experts you have, without local knowledge, cultural sensibility, and knowing your neighbors, it will all fail." -Kelly Thompson
13:33: "Learn from the chaos to build capacity and to make it easier." -Mark Martin Bras
15:17: "The cavalry is YOU." -Jennifer Thompson
20:20: "If you have that information and those resources mapped ahead of time and year-round, you have a safety net." -Kelly Thompson
20:52: "We have to look at all of the lessons learned and build that resilience in to mitigate the risk for next time." -Kelly Thompson
22:56: "You have to look at your community in terms of what stops running and why, and how to fix that." -Mark Martin Bras
25:39: "You can push something, onto a community, that's not needed. And it can create additional problems." -Kelly Thompson
26:12: "Managing the donations, if they were not specifically asked for means that it's a huge mess. Some things are different according to the type of disaster." -Jennifer Thompson
34:36: "If there's no help coming, then you better act because what's lost is hope." -Mark Martin Bras
39:52: "The work should be done before the disaster or we'll do the same mistake again." -Mark Martin Bras
44:43: "Fast action from companies, if it's ethical, saves lives. And there's a social responsibility attached to this." -Mark Martin Bras
50:33: "When there's not a disaster on the way, the important thing is to build that plan for people to be empowered to help and to have a role in the disaster." -Kelly Thompson
51:03: "That gives people hope to know that there's a plan, to know that there are other people they can count on during that time. And that leads to sustainability too." -Kelly Thompson
01:00:28: "Act and adjust, act and empower, act and build capacity. But you have to act safely and ethically." -Mark Martin Bras
01:02:33: "When you have a disaster, the community will not turn away, they will turn towards each other." -Jennifer Thompson
01:07:19: "It's not just a hurricane, it's not just a fire, it's a world thing." -Mark Martin Bras
Meet Mark Martin Bras, Co-Founder of Viequeslove
Mark has lived on Vieques for 20 years. Hailing from Puerto Rico he is an experienced community organizer who has spent the last few decades gaining the trust of all levels of society in Vieques Puerto Rico. While he is most associated with the Vieques Historical and Conservation Trust as a salaried advocate for the bioluminescent bay, he has given his time freely to others. He is bilingual and often serves as a translator for defendants in the legal system. He is considered a scientific expert on bioluminescence and is invited to do original oceanographic research by academic scientists worldwide. Martin Bras is considered by most children on the island to be their personal friend and their favorite teacher, and most federal, Puerto Rican and Viequenses politicians ask for him by name to be their translator, guide, and community negotiator. Immediately after Hurricane Maria Mark started organizing a team on Vieques and co-founded ViequesLove by connecting to the off-island team. He dedicated almost a year volunteering in relief efforts, as a liaison and translator for Tesla and a crucial team member of the group advocating for better power solutions on the island. He is now working for ViequesLove and is the community organizer and coordinator.
Meet Kelly Thomson, Executive Director of Viequeslove
Kelly has lived on Vieques for 15 years and works tirelessly to serve the community. A graphic designer by trade she is the publisher and designer of Vieques Insider, a magazine designed to connect visitors to the people and culture of the island. Kelly was in Pennsylvania when Hurricane Maria struck Vieques and immediately started a GoFundMe to raise money for relief efforts. This fund quickly grew and ViequesLove was formed. Friends reached out to help and the group was able to send the first plane full of supplies and satellite phones to the island. Kelly volunteered for almost a full year for ViequesLove and is now a paid employee serving the organization as executive director.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to another edition of How To Disaster. Today, I'm really pleased to bring to you another grassroots organization much like ours that's started in the midst of a disaster. We started in the middle of wildfire and this organization started in the middle of a wind and rain event, probably the most significant of this century which was hurricane Maria. My guests today are Mark Martin Bras who is the government liaison and co-founder of ViequesLove. And Kelly Thompson, who is now the executive director. I asked him here today part of the How To Disaster so they can tell you their story of mobilizing an entire community to help an island survive an unprecedented wind and rain event on an island seven miles off another Island, Puerto Rico. For over the past three years, they have managed to not only serve their community, but act as a hub of recovery and rebuilding. I just think they have a lot of great advice and ideas. They can help other communities, whether or not you're an island, it's not to be wind and rain, it can be wildfire any other type of disaster. But one of the things I really love about their story is they really engaged the government and advocacy. They have made sure they were culturally appropriate. And they've made sure that they served bilingually and they serve the needs that were right in front of them.
"We can't force our systems on to something else and be totally successful. You can bring tools, you can adapt tools, but the biggest successes come from seeing the problem in front of you and then using your creativity in order to solve those problems in ways that are relevant and effective." -Jennifer Thompson
One of my favorite stories is about their failures and communication. It's not so much that failures and communication are a good thing. But what they learned from it was to train, for example, 48 people on their Island and how to use a ham radio, and how much of their successes actually came from looking at the problem in front of them and meeting the community exactly where they're at. I think that's a really important part of disaster is we can't force our systems on to something else and be totally successful. You can bring tools, you can adapt tools, but the biggest successes come from seeing the problem or the challenge in front of you, and then using your creativity in order to solve those problems in ways that are relevant and effective. So I'm so excited to have them with us today, and thank you for joining us. I want to welcome my two guests today, I have Mark Martin Bras, who is the government of liaison and community organizer for a ViequesLove, which I'm probably totally mangling the name, and I apologize about that. And also Kelly Thompson. Kelly Thompson is the executive director. And as I said in the intro, I really love their organization because it's very grassroots, it's very relevant to the community that they serve. And I also think they have really great lessons that you can take back into your own community and adapt. So welcome to both of you. I'm hoping that we can start off by actually you telling us a little bit about yourselves, including what did you do before hurricane Maria in 2017. And Mark, why don't I start with you? Go ahead.
Mark Martin Bras: Sure. First of all, thank you for having us. And for doing this, I think it's very important to have this type of consideration in this type of format so we can talk to each other about things we know and lessons learned. I actually work in marine biology. And during the days of slime and work with turtles, fish, students, created an environmental education program. And then during the night, I work in a bioluminescent Bay where we sample and take water quality measurements of the brightest bioluminescent Bay in the world where everything in the water glows and eerie blue light. So that's what I did before marine.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That is amazing. And when I saw that in your bio, I was like, Oh, no, it's really gonna be rough, but I'm just gonna have to go there to check that out with you. Pandemic is over. It's very impressive. And Kelly, can you talk to us about it? Oh, and Mark, by the way, has lived in Vegas for 20 years. So Kelly, can you talk to us about your history on the island? What did you do before hurricane Maria?
Kelly Thompson: Yes, sure. And thanks for having us on Jennifer. Before Maria, I was a graphic designer/photographer, and I published a magazine here on the island that was meant to connect the visitor to the island. If you were having a lobster dinner at a restaurant, you got to know through my articles, you got to know the fishermen that caught that lobster for you. So it was really a connecting magazine. That's what I did. And Mark and I have known each other ever since. I think we've both been here for 16 to 18 years, I've lost track, but we've been friends ever since.
Mark Martin Bras: A lot of years.
Kelly Thompson: It feels like that, sometimes.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: One of the things we were talking about just before we started recording was, take us back to September of 2017. And correct me if any of my facts are wrong, hurricane Maria has hit and really take us to where you are, and then mark, take us to where you are.
Kelly Thompson: Okay. Well, one missing part of that puzzle was hurricane Irma hit before Maria. So the island was completely without power even before Maria. I left the island to work on the magazine. I needed power and the internet so I went to the states with a roundtrip ticket for five days. And then realized power was not to be returned for some time. So as I was watching it and figuring out when to come home, we see Maria forming off the coast of Africa, and that's when we began to get a little bit nervous about what was going to happen to the island. So that evening actually, my partner was still here on the island. My daughter and I were in the states that evening. I set up a GoFundMe hoping to raise 1,000 to $10,000, to maybe send down a satellite phone or something because there were really not any other groups that were off the island an accessible with power to put the word out that they needed help. I think that that's why the ViequesLove GoFundMe grew and grew. And through the magazine connections with every person who had ever visited Vieques looking online to see how they could help. We had people from 1974 who came on their honeymoon here and never returned but felt such a connection to the island that they gave $500. And the GoFundMe just grew exponentially. In five days, we had over $500,000, and it was just an incredible show of love for Vieques.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It's amazing how useful it is if people have visited an area and then they experience a disaster. There's a direct correlation often to the impulse to, or the incentive to donate. So that's always one of those components that we want to keep in mind with how to fund a disaster. Mark, what were you doing at this time? What's going on for you?
Mark Martin Bras: Well, I was a bit careless. We got Maria, Maria was a monster. We're a small island. It's about 21 miles long, about four and a half miles wide facing the Caribbean Sea, and really went right through us and shocked everybody. It was like, suddenly the time stopped. People were on the street, there was a certain shock, a psychological shock to people, even people in government, you never could tell who was going to be able to work. So some of us were in small groups, and went clearing roads, we went taking people out of houses that were destroyed, and trying to get access to water, trying to talk to a gorman a new night, and try to figure out what we were going to do because basically collapse. The local government collapsed, the emergency management could not handle everything. The mayor himself was not able to coordinate well. So we started coordinating and we were on the field. And I was there with a chainsaw, moving things on a truck. Suddenly this guy pulls over and gives me a satellite phone. I'm like, this is very real, okay. I pick it up and it's Kelly. I know Kelly from the Vieques Insider, an incredible graphic designer and stuff. I'm like, Kelly, we're busy here, foolish me. And so we're busy here, we're doing the thing, we're taking care of it hands on and we need a lot of things. He's like, wait, wait, stop talking. I'm like, no, we gotta do this. We gotta get through this. It's just like stop talking. I raised $600,000 for helping Vieques, and so I stopped talking. I dropped the chainsaw, I turned it off first and then I went straight to the government. I was like, wait, things changed. Because one of the things that happened in Maria here was the isolation of being on an island, and the fact that we did not get government support right away. As we were thinking we were. We remembered Hugo, we remember things, you saw this massive movement of people around the island here, and in the main island, they were not here.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You let our watchers and our listeners know the geography of the island, you're an island off an island.
Mark Martin Bras: Correct. And we call a colony, basically we are Puerto Rico's 100, and something miles by 35 miles, obviously, the Caribbean Sea there. And then about six, seven miles off the coast, as far as a crow fly, you got Vieques, a very thin Island. You may know Vieques from the military bombing and the civil disobedience that went on to stop that bombing, but an island that's connected by ferry, and then a very inadequate system, and by small little planes that hold like seven or nine people. And those things both stopped after Maria. No communication, no supplies, nobody's coming. So we were left in this hopelessness and had to pull together the fact that suddenly at one point, we were like, well, at least we got money and we're gonna start doing whatever we can. So Kelly came up with this great idea and she said: "Well, if they won't come, we'll send somebody." And she did.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Kelly--
Kelly Thompson: Someone and 12 satellite phones.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: How did you choose like, so one of the things that happens for those of us who have experienced huge disasters is many people from the outside will look at it, until you actually experience it, it's all theory, do you know? How did you choose that person? Where did you buy those satellites? How did you make the decision to prioritize the satellite phones? And why was that so important, especially for an island?
"No matter how many experts you have, without local knowledge, cultural sensibility, and knowing your neighbors, it will all fail." -Kelly Thompson
Kelly Thompson: Well, it's really interesting about the group that coalesced around this initiative. We knew, mark, and we knew what he would be doing on the island. Absolutely, he was the first person we needed to reach with the satellite phone. Because no matter how many experts you have from off the island, without that local knowledge and that cultural sensibility, and knowing your neighbors, it will all fail. So we knew we needed to get a hold of certain people, Mark and my friend, Angie Adams, they were both organizing with a great number of other people on the island that were doing so much. But in the States, I also had groups of people approaching me who had, again, been to the island, loved the island, had lived on the island, and were offering their help. None of us were disaster experts or had ever worked in the disaster field before. But knowing that we had local knowledge and those connections to people through, we knew we had to get satellite phones to them. There was no way to communicate with anyone or to know if anyone was safe. So we knew immediately the groups we had to get the satellite phones to so that we would have that communication, but that they would also have the communication on the ground. Mark delivered the satellite phones to the police, the ambulance, the hospital, the mayor, all of the connecting agencies that needed that communication. And then we had three satellite phone calls a day, one at midnight to find out what was needed on a daily basis.
"Learn from the chaos to build capacity and to make it easier." -Mark Martin Bras
Mark Martin Bras: And by the way, I think a little bit of what you're asking, Jennifer, is part of what this whole initiative and what you're doing is all about, how do we learn from the chaos that it was to build capacity to make it easier? Because you're not always going to have that kind of money, and you're not going to be able to pull those kinds of triggers. I mean, Kelly hired a private jet, put a person with satellite phones, and money, and resources, and cancer medicine, and things like that and sent it over. Not everybody can do that. So we have to learn how those experiences taught us how to build capacity. And prioritizing is a big key factor that you mentioned, obviously, life or death is the first priority. If that person is gonna die, throw the book at it and throw the money at it, because you can replace that as opposed to building or some of the other structure. And that's what we were dealing with at first, how do we stop that from happening?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So in the immediate, while the disaster has been, in our case, our disasters go on for like three weeks. We'll have a wildfire, a wind and rain event. You have it and then the aftermath is like a bomb hit with climate change. These disasters are just bigger, larger and more sunny. And one of the things I really love about your story besides so many things is the role of the emergent leader. That you don't have to have a Master's in Public Policy. You don't have to have disaster experience. What you have to have is relationships that you have to actually love the place you're serving and put it as the highest priority. We want to encourage emergent leadership in every single disaster, ethical emergent leadership. But so often, what people do in a disaster is they look towards the government entirely. And they're like, why aren't they coming? I mean, where's the Calvary? We are here to let every disaster affect the community know that the Calvary is actually you. It just is. So glad you touched on that. If you want to expand on that at all, I would love for you to do that. How important that emergent leadership is, and that cultural competency in those relationships?
Mark Martin Bras: I spend a little bit. I think one of the things that I like about being a slough is that it understood its role at the moment. And at the moment, the beginning moment, it was chaos, and you have phones, you throw at it, and we were doing an identification and a prioritization that you mentioned. But then you learn from that and you say, okay, so you probably have some emergent leaders out there. Including some very young ones that you can build capacity and tap into training and programs so that you can soften the blow. And so you get used for the new world, which includes these disasters coming more frequently and harder. In our case, we were able to have things that you underestimate, like communications. Well, we did bring those satellite phones and we were like, okay, we'll give them to the agencies that make sense to us. But then they asked us like, okay, we want to talk to our families. And you have people here, Vieques only has around 8 to 9,000 people. And you have them suffering more than just what they didn't have in terms of water, or electricity or food, or the guarantee of having that for longer periods of time, but they wanted to talk. And so we formed lines in the Town Plaza, Town Square. So the phones that Kelly got, we were using them for obvious coordination reasons. What we didn't know and we saw was that a human factor.
And this is something that for me, who were being very mission oriented, trying to help, that slipped me. And I learned a lot when they told me, we have Robert Bakker, an expert, a political advisor who said: "Let's set them up in a plaza and let people talk to their families. This will make for a communal calmness." And they did. People got one or two minutes to talk, and they would reach, and we would help them because it's a satellite phone. And they would call and it would be a progression. You see the people first like anxious, worried. Then the phone would pick up and they would break, we even had to prep them like don't cry, use your time, ask him for what you need, let him know you're alive. After that, we took the phone. And when that happened, there was a relaxation. So we were able, they were able to function better. They counted. And it's the little things like that that you learn to adjust from. We had a hero here, a guy on a Pathfinder with a ham radio, amateur radio. And when nobody could talk to anybody, that one guy would go to the hospital, would go to the police and he would talk to anything. So we learned from that. And Kelly started a program with a transformer local group here. Now, there's 42 radio operators with radios in an emergency net, including boats for fishers, people with cars, resiliency hubs, because we did not have a resiliency hub. Now, it has three to build one building. So part of the real essence is take the time when there is not a disaster to adjust from the lessons learned like what we're talking about here now, but to use the resources that are being put out there to be resiliency. And it was certainly a learning experience for us.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We did a couple lessons that are so awesome in this, the first one is that mental health is a huge concern during and after, and forever after a disaster. But you can actually build mental health capacity if you think in advance. Everyone needs to tell people they're okay. I was in the middle of the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, and I remember waiting in line at a church, it was all very dramatic to call my family and tell them that I was okay. And just like once that's done, then you can sort of move on with your day. But first, you have to be able to communicate. So the second part of the story I also love so much is that one guy was doing ham radio, which is what some 51, and I think of people who are in their 70's. I think it's like an, maybe I think they're the 1970's, about using that analog mode of communication. But what an amazing thing to have at your disposal and to build resilience into your community. It could be a rural community, any community if they have a ham radio hub. I find that very impressive in your story. And Kelly, can you talk to us about how you took that lesson and just sort of expanded it into more of a mid and long term model?
"If you have that information and those resources mapped ahead of time and year-round, you have a safety net." -Kelly Thompson
Kelly Thompson: Yeah. I think that as Mark said, the lessons learned during this for instance, we were talking about that plane that we initially sent down five days after the hurricane. Well, it took time to find that plane, it took time to find the pilot. A plane that could carry cargo, one tank of gas, make it to Vegas, be able to refuel in another island and return to Florida. That's the kind of thing that is a lesson for me, for us, for everyone. That if you have that information and those resources mapped ahead of time, and year round you're looking at resources and assets and where you are in relationship to then, you have a plan, you have more of a safety net. And this communication is one of our proudest accomplishments to say we will no longer ever be cut off from the rest of the world. We now can communicate with marine radios, ham radio, satellite phones, satellite internet and will no longer ever have the problem that we had before. So we have to look at all of the lessons learned during that time and build that resilience to mitigate the risk for next time.
"We have to look at all of the lessons learned and build that resilience in to mitigate the risk for next time." -Kelly Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Go ahead, Mark, go.
Mark Martin Bras: The details that I need to explain, and it's a lesson for all small rural communities that do not count on their resiliency of communications. You might not realize how the internet really runs everything. So again, back on a small island, no internet, no banks, no ATM, no pharmacy, health plan, verification, no supermarket running any type of card, no food stamps, cards and all that stuff in the middle of a crisis. So you have all these people who were like, some of them, that's the only income or that's the only way. But you could not take cash out of the bank.
Kelly Thompson: People were literally starving. I mean, no way of accessing food at all.
"You have to look at your community in terms of what stops running and why, and how to fix that." -Mark Martin Bras
Mark Martin Bras: So Generation Gives, which is another nonprofits of ours, as we teamed up, he came down. Again, another guy who had come to our island, you realize, one of the travelers that came here says" "I got an answer. And if you help me, we can make that answer big." So we invested in his answer. What was his answer? Portable internet. So he hooked it up to the supermarket, and he was the first time. One guy from one organization, that anybody in Vieques used a credit card, or bought food, or cashing their food stamps. Not the government, one guy with a briefcase. For security reasons, we can't do it. So we got the ATM private guy and made another line in the town square where people could access through his little portable internet. The pharmacy could not validate people's health plans, so we had to take cash out of our pockets to pay for some people's medicine until suddenly, they could put some internet. So you really have to look at your community in terms of what stops running and why. And how do you fix that? And the internet is a huge one.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It's a huge one. It's actually something that we invested in last year to have a study done about communication failures and disaster because so many of the systems that we have come to depend on are completely not in play. Even in a place like Malibu, they lost all ability to communicate and keep their first responders safe. And their city manager had to run down to the lifeguard stations because they're the only ones with a landline in order to run the city. And a lot of people who saw, like the fire trucks parked on Zuma beach during the Woolsey fire in 2018 thought that nobody, like why did you send him up to save my house? And the truth is there was no internet, there was no cellular service so there was no way to send first responders up into the canyons of Malibu to save houses when you couldn't even keep them safe, or even let them know which way the wind was blowing. There's a lot of dependency that we have on internet systems. But until we had our disaster, I didn't even know there was a portable internet. What have you learned since then about portable internet?
Mark Martin Bras: Yeah. I think one of the things that we learned is that, ironically banks, supermarkets are such a small one, and many of these other people do not have backup systems. Now with satellite internet, then you realize, wow, satellite internet? I do know about. So I just have to set that up. How many people like the receiving see hope and said, okay, this is the internet I put this year. Here again, I bring it down. Here I can go, I put it back up, pre arranged the facing to the satellite and my solar power, which is a huge lesson we learned, will power it and then I'll have internet. So we learned, but at the time, again, how many banks in your community, if you're in a rural community, what's the bank's answer to this? What's the supermarket, what's the pharmacy's answer. And then islands, going back to islands, we don't have the luxury of somebody saying, Oh, I'm in Texas, I'm gonna drive to Louisiana to help.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You didn't get a lot of use clothes. And so that's something we would like everyone can start--
"You can push something, onto a community, that's not needed. And it can create additional problems." -Kelly Thompson
Kelly Thompson: We said, No. We said no to so many. It was so hard to say no because we had so many organizations reaching out to us saying: "Can we ship containers of stuff to you?" And we learned an important lesson, we had an advisor who was telling us about the push poll and how you can push something onto a community that's not needed. It can create additional problems, or it's just something they cannot use at the time. So we actually said no to so many people, and it was so hard to do that at the time, but it was probably one of the best things we had ever done. We know that other islands had received ice skates, winter clothes and things like that, that they had to sort through and then figure out how to get them to people who can actually use them.
"Managing the donations, if they were not specifically asked for means that it's a huge mess. Some things are different according to the type of disaster." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It actually creates a secondary disaster, all that goodwill. Because managing the donations, if they were not specifically asked for, means that it's just a huge mess, and most of the clothes go into landfill. So this is really just a natural segue into some things are different according to the type of disaster and always meet the community exactly where they're at, which is one of the things I said in your intro that I was really fascinated by your stories of looking at essentially the matrix of need, and then figuring out the priority where you could fill in and then that does change immediate midterm and long term.
Kelly Thompson: You had asked what we had learned about the internet and all the communication being lost. And one of those lessons is something so basic, but so important. And having a plan for next time of having actual meeting locations established, distribution locations, we resorted to a bullhorn and blackboards around the community to put up information because people were just craving that information. So that is really important to have that kind of plan within your community.
"The cavalry is YOU." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It's been good to see that in every disaster, we see callfire for example, has dropped off analog forms of communication, sandwich boards, even in a place like we're connected, we are about 10, 15 minutes off the 101 freeway. So we are not as isolated. But even in a place like Sonoma, we still needed to see the maps, the updated information. Also for some people, especially if you're senior, you need a phone call, you're not going to do as well, you're not going to be able to look it up on your phone, if your phone is even working. So there's just a lot of different things to consider. One of the things that happens in wildfire though that's different from wind and rain is you have these houses, they're gone maybe under three minutes, it can be a football field of destruction every few seconds. That's how hot our mega fires are now. They are so incredibly destructive. In our case, we lost almost 6,000 units of housing in the first five hours. So that is really stunning to think about. However, at the end of it all, we only had to house through FEMA about 168 people. I think they're still puzzling over like, where do people go? But this is a different issue on an island. Can you talk to us about how did you handled immediate shelter needs? How long did it take for FEMA to get there? What kind of services did you actually get from the federal government?
Mark Martin Bras: Well, I think the federal government themselves will even admit that they dropped the ball on this one. I think it's one of the things that you were saying earlier, Jennifer, that the people in an ethical way have to participate, and the government has to allow that participation to be a more structured welcoming thing. We did not have people for weeks go over any federal government, and we thankfully are building mostly out of cement on the islands. So our destruction of housing is definitely bad, but it's not something that the houses are completely gone like wildfires, which when you said the first time we thought, I mean, once you hear it from people who've been there it stops you. We had to look at it in the way of energy, which we didn't have for a very, very long time. Water, which at one time was critical. And we were looking at each other like, what do we do now? And food supplies and such, I mean, those were three things that took away longer when we were talking about colonies and we were talking about under serve. The realities that the amount of time that Vieques was without power, Puerto Rico for that matter, for Vieques without power and the amount of time that it took for help to come. If you were talking in Florida, you'd be talking weeks, we were talking eight months.
"If there's no help coming, then you better act because what's lost is hope." -Mark Martin Bras
So being isolated here brought up something that really strikes people, and if there's not that help coming, then you better act because what's lost is hope. And it traumatizes people for longer than it makes them unable to work, unable to deal with it and it becomes a little different. So some action sometimes, as long as it's safe and ethical, some action, even if it's not the most effective in the world, those imply that people are like saying, okay, we can do this. Even involving those people that normally are traumatized in the help. But we were a case study of how we did not really get a lot of help, then a lot of lobbying and advocacy. Honestly speaking, we have people that have a love for the islands, publications, congresspersons and other people that came up and said: "Hey, you know what? What about Vieques?" You have George Pataki, other people that either live here or have a house here made an effort and said: "No, no, no, no, you pay attention to them." And you look at that, and that doesn't seem like part of the plan. It shouldn't be because it obviously has a sort of discriminative power. Who happens to live there, if you have a millionaire, or a billionaire, or a politician, then you get better treatment. It should not be though. But it is important that you know who your voices out that can advocate for you, and you have to create spaces for advocates to go like we did with the Hispanic Federation.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I want you to stay in this for just a minute because we have been viewed with suspicion, even derision and even been maligned because we prioritized advocacy from the beginning. And we knew that we didn't know much, but we did know that there are a lot of disasters now. In the United States, we had 22 disasters that cost a billion dollars or over just in 2020, and does not count COVID. These are climate change disasters. People don't necessarily understand that you have to advocate for your community because if you don't, you get lost. And it's not because FEMA, it's not because they're bad people, it's not because they don't care, it's not because USDA doesn't want to help you, it's because you have to actually rise to the moment and say, wait, look at us. And one of the things that ReBuild NorthBay, we believe that there are many opportunities to build what we call regional equity into disaster to level it so that it isn't the case that you have to be a more well resourced community to get what you need. Because as you are, it's so frustrating to us that you have to hire a giant accounting firm. And what if you can't afford a lobbyists? Two out of the four counties that we represent, they don't have federal lobbyists because they can't afford them. But you have, is it you had some politicians have emotional connection, and it shouldn't be based upon luck. But regardless, I do want you to tell our audience though your story of advocacy and any advice that you can give them, especially their community that may not have that direct emotional relationship with people in positions of power.
"The work should be done before the disaster or we'll do the same mistake again." -Mark Martin Bras
Mark Martin Bras: Well, I think I've several things. One is identify people who represent you and then try to put this in their agenda. I think nobody can tell me that they were ready. No politician, no emergency person, not the government, nobody FEMA, nobody was ready for this. Although climate change was leaning towards this for a long time, FEMA blatantly said, Hey, we have five disasters at the same time, we won't build for that. We can't do it. Then we have to adjust. Advocacy shows a couple of things. One is we're here, we're alive. This is going on because when I went to Washington DC to advocate, or when I was talking to the people, they were completely confused about where we were, forget about what we were or what we needed. They were like, oh, you're taken care of by these people? No, we're not. Oh, really? So they don't know. Advocacy isn't necessary. Because sometimes, it's not the job of senators or many other people to be handling operations. They break policy, and that policy doesn't work anymore. And we have to advocate to find the answer. An ethical, just a creative answer for the fact that the emergency system and even the funding for it does not work. So it'd be in their economic interest in the resiliency and life saving tree structure to what we're living today. We had some people that traveled here to Vieques, we have some people who are politicians who could make a phone call. But one of the best ways that I would like to see it happen, and it's competitive, is to identify the leaders in the community. And these are sometimes 14 year olds. And go up from there to say they can represent those, they can capture the audience. And again, one of the things that I learned the most that makes me like a desperate person now is that while there's not a disaster, when you have to work, when you're in disaster, you get more attention, and obviously more funding or pension, more government action. But the work should be done before the disaster or we'll do the same mistake again.
"When you have a disaster, the community will not turn away, they will turn towards each other." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Totally see that's true. But you also have the extra added bonus becoming a political football and not in a big way. Just yesterday, the binding ministry released the allocated funds because a lot of people don't understand how to go through a disaster. It's not like you have a disaster, and then all the government fundings rolls in. So when you see a certain amount allocated to an area, it could still take 2, 3, 4 years to get there. And just yesterday, the bind administration actually released--
Mark Martin Bras: They just closed the sandy disaster like a year and a half ago, two years. So it gives you an idea how long it could take. One of the things that I think it's another lesson to learn is that communities need convening organizations that can work between the government, the NGO's, the community, the local governments and the federal government. That is very necessary. It goes from the operations of coordination of resources, funding grants, capacity building, etc, to the advocacy. Funding federation is a good example who said, I want to take people to Washington, and I want to pay for that. I want to take leaders so that they tell the senators and the Congressperson what's going on.
Kelly Thompson: So the Hispanic Federation tell us what they did
Mark Martin Bras: The Hispanic Federation, but from dealing with a lot funding, a lot of recovery programs and a lot of donations that they did, and hosting a lot of think tanks and webinars, etc to build capacity, they created a voice, a space for a voice in Washington DC in what they call the day of action where they paid for leaders from all over Puerto Rico, including myself, to go to Capitol Hill and say, hey, we think you should do something about the way that recovery funding is going about the restructuring of how FEMA works. And they allowed us to say whatever we wanted, but they put us in front of Congress and the Senate to try to bring that, and they constantly advocate for that. So that's a good example of a foundation that's basically saying advocacy is for sure. Equally important because if you don't say a policy that doesn't work, and a funding structure that doesn't work, you're going to wind up. So they continue to do that. And I think that many platforms, that one, the Rise Platform is a very interesting one based out of the Sunni and Cooney systems in New York, with agencies in Puerto Rico. We just like, how can academia help restructure that disaster? And the Diaspora movement, how can we make it more efficient using our intellectual capacity? So there are some foundations and some entities out there who are saying this just doesn't work. So we have to advocate and we have to stratagems.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And I also noticed that you guys worked with Tesla, can you talk to us about that? Because we believe that big tech has a big place in improving disaster. But can you talk about your work with Tesla?
Mark Martin Bras: Sure. ViequesLove and Kelly specifically, when Tesla comes to Puerto Rico, I don't work or we don't work for Tesla, and we think all renewable energy should be pursued in the solar especially. So companies are good. But when Tesla showed up, when not a lot of people had shown up and said, we have a humanitarian, and we want to help water, we want to help communications and we want to help health. We'll do some private things. They came here and put solar arrays and power packs in the health center, in the water pumping station and in a couple of other places. And then they said, we'll also help individual people who are in renal patients, diabetes, asthmatic, and we'll set them a few houses with power walls with their different technology. And then they kept on working, kept on talking. And then they said, you know what? And one of them flew in and said: "We think we can make the islands solar." And we were like, what? So they came and they spent a lot of their money trying to see how they could make it a solar island. And eventually, I think Tesla was working at a very fast speed that the Puerto Rican government was still really. So locally they said: "Sure, go ahead." If you can make our islands solar, absolutely. And then they did the engineering and such, it goes to a main island Puerto Rico, it didn't work out business wise.
"Fast action from companies, if it's ethical, saves lives. And there's a social responsibility attached to this." -Mark Martin Bras
I'm not privy to that information, I don't know why. But what it did show was that fast action from companies if it's ethical, saves lives, and then there's a social responsibility attached to this, and a prototype that they could now deploy package systems in health, water and communications. And we need to reach out to them or other people. I can do that for rural communities that have no other answer. The other thing that I showed is it can be done. So by that push of having a solar array, kind of like a micro grid for the whole island, different federal funding and different data, it can be done. We should take a look at it. So that was, I take my heart off the Tesla because they were there. I'm very controversial in many ways, but I was there when they were doing the work. And again, they ask the faster many other people. The other people that I gotta say, and I'll take my whole head out to them, the United States Coast Guard. When nobody came here, the first boat that came here was the United States Coast Guard. They came to shoreline and basically said: "Take me to your leader." And we did. They came back five times and brought water, diesel, food, communications and hope on a boat. I tell you, we had two operations guys, four vehicles, there's like six people telling [inaudible] and through their connection, and the Coast Guard, they were lifesavers and they were definitely a show of force.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: There's so many things to touch upon your story. One of the things that I really love is how often you bring up the term hope. And I either often, we say our organization really, we mitigate pain and we try to give hope to new communities and say: "Look, this terrible thing happened, but you can get through it. Here are some tools you can adapt that will work." It will depend on emergent leaders, and it does actually depend upon, the government has a role to play, and these convening organizations like yours and like mine have a very important role to play.
And then there's this other space between where the private sector can also make a huge difference. I love the fact that we don't think of Tesla or any other, it doesn't matter about Tesla so much. We don't care if they're controversial, but any corporation can go in as long as they're not trying to really profit off of your misery, which is disaster capitalism. They are honestly just seeing how we can make a difference. We believe that our organization, the private sector has a huge role to play because they also have fast money, they have fast money making, really a significant humanitarian difference, and to bring hope and relief to people when they're at their most vulnerable. It's really like a call out to any corporation that has something to give, even if they can fund the dollars to bring the systems in, if they can fund whatever the ecosystem of care that was created on, the models from certain places can be adapted to other places, it may be that they fly you and Kelly into another island community or rural community and say, here are some things that really worked for us. We know that FEMA is getting more and more clear as the years go on that they actually can't go out this alone, that they do need you, and they do need me, they do need Rebuild Paradise, and they're super vocal and appreciative about that. But to invite the private sector in is not the same as inviting them into profit off of your misery. But in fact, they have a role to play.
Mark Martin Bras: And I'm gonna leave that whole thing for Kelly here because she's, again, I missed it. It was a learning experience for me by ignoring, and of course, I've changed my life the way I have to learn. But I want to say two things that you said there. One, the Clinton Global Initiative, for example, a very good example of how to merge these people into agreements so that the private sector can ethically participate with the government and with their local organizations to empower them not to tell them what to do, to empower them so that they can do the thing. But one thing that sounds strange, but people have to realize about organizations like yours and ours, and some of the other ones is that they are successful because they are flexible and agile. And resiliency has a lot of redundancy, but it doesn't cover everything. No model, no preparation in preparation for the flexibility of having the funds, or the flexibility that the government may not have to say, I'm suddenly gonna deal with a pharmacy that's gone, I'm gonna turn around and deal with a duck. And it needs money and it needs attention, I can do that now what other bureaucracy. And that flexibility and that idleness is why these types of organizations are going to be needed from now on no matter what you build us capacity because it's an unknown world. But in terms of hope, I think that is one of the things that Kelly, when everybody else just loved it a lot better than me. I was sort of being human based, and I apologize to all the people I mistreated along the way.
"When there's not a disaster on the way, the important thing is to build that plan for people to be empowered to help and to have a role in the disaster." -Kelly Thompson
Kelly Thompson: Well, Mark says that only because he was essentially running a military, almost a military base kind of phased operation on the ground, he was handling so much while we were providing the support from the States. But he provided hope to people by empowering people. One of the things that he mentioned earlier that working year round, when there's not a disaster on the way, when we're working outside of the disaster, the important thing is to build that plan for people to be empowered, to help and to have a role in the disaster. And as part of our initiative, and also the initiative at the Vieques conservation and historical trust is to train people for cert training for community emergency response teams, and to get that training and that empowerment in place before the next disaster. So that gives people hope to know that there's a plan, to know that there are other people they can count on during that time. And that leads to sustainability too.
"That gives people hope to know that there's a plan, to know that there are other people they can count on during that time. And that leads to sustainability too." -Kelly Thompson
Mark Martin Bras: And I think we can all evolve to what's happening. If you're better prepared, you're a lot less worried. I mean, we are better at handling COVID, and the pandemic in Vieques because our experience from Merck, that's a fact.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I just want to give an Amen to that. Oh, my goodness, yes. And it speaks to when you think so much of that, about the flexibility that you had to earn during the disaster. And COVID descended, we were able to immediately pivot to just focus on that for months. We focused on that solely for about four or five months, grant making a lot of convening and a lot of teaching other organizations how to pivot themselves, and to make sure that they had the support, and the see ourselves as a network as opposed to individual actors in a relief place. But how did you respond? I love that you talked about flexibility, how important that is. But how did you respond to COVID on the island. Must be great to be on an island in the middle of COVID.
Kelly Thompson: In some ways, but we don't have a hospital here. We had to look at, in the same thing as looking at a disaster like a hurricane, you're looking at the risk to lives, and you're looking at what could possibly happen, and the obstacles to that, and putting solutions in place before it happens. So we don't have a hospital here, any COVID positive patient has to be transported off the island either by boat or plane in an isolation chamber, which we did not have. So that became part of a plan that our COO Jorge Fernandez-Porto wrote a proposal for a grant from the Hispanic Federation. And we started with a grant from them to develop this contact tracing team and put that plate in place way back in March before we even had one case here. We started an education campaign for the community and contact tracing training so everyone was ready for that risk. And then he wrote the proposal for the municipality to receive the CARES Act funding so it was adding to that initiative. It was just growing, but we had that strong team. But looking at those risks ahead of time, just with any kind of disaster, you have to put the solutions in place before it actually happens.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You have to, but we're human. It's how it actually happened. Even in places like we were, I'm in California, so we think earthquakes, I've been through a lot of earthquakes. I've been through big ones and small ones. So that's what we always thought about, we never really anticipated because we were the first huge, big, ugly, nasty, awful, mega fire. And now, Paradise and Woolsey fire, and so many things have happened since. So it was almost that we our emergency managers, they weren't even here. They were like, we never occurred them to leave one at home. So they don't work there anymore. I think that people, because of COVID are going to be more interested and more willing to think about climate change, climate disasters, you see them and you see them on TV. But tell you undergoing--
Kelly Thompson: Yeah. I almost disagree with that statement that--
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Go ahead.
Kelly Thompson: I think that people don't realize until they go through something like that. They don't realize, they have no idea what it would be like to live through a wildfire or to live without power for five months or seven months. You can't even fathom it in because you're so used to the conveniences of life. I don't know how it's going to sink in. I really don't--
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We actually agree. So if I wasn't clear, I totally, that's one of the hardest things about building in preparedness is that you can't fathom that you could walk out into, I remember this one point when I was evacuating the whole town of Sonoma and we were going out to Sears Point. We've been at this point for about four days, and we were surrounded by wildfires that were merging, growing and destroying, and we couldn't breathe. We had been doing services for days, and I was with my dogs in the car. I'd sent my husband and my stepson off already, and I thought, wow, everything I've ever known in my whole life is gonna go like, that's probably the reality of it in every way. It sounds really hokey where I had my first kiss, or I had a bad date, or like all of those touch points of your life. There's a visual when I was letting go as I was sitting in this long line, and I just cried my eyes out. So it was a very, it was kind of a terrible moment. But we've lived through that awful made for TV movie, I never watched disaster movies.
Mark Martin Bras: I think that you're both right, although you think to disagree. I think people not only need to learn their lessons, even the people that went through it have a short memory. And the reason that I say that is because we're used to it being on or off. When that power came back on for the first time, people were different. They were like, Oh, my God. And they're hugging, they're saving it and they're like, I'm gonna get solar and I'm gonna be more of this. And as time goes by, they start forgetting because they get compliance, which is what got us into being so unready in the beginning. I think that is a stoppage that we have to do. I don't know what needs to be said because one of the things that all these assessors that we're talking about over the wildfires, the hurricanes and the earthquake, and all that what many of you talking climate change, you're talking a climate change that we created or contributed to and you need to address until we have to change our complete lifestyles. Or if not, then what have we really learned? It's a question of investing in the future of the world, rather than just saying, Oh, well, next year, climate change is still gonna be like this. But could you imagine, not many hurricanes we had this year, we didn't get one in Vieques. So you're talking, now we're gonna get to an area of 20 superstorms a year, you want to get to that? No, you still have time. So we have to make some radical changes, some radical policy decisions or advocacy coming back to it because people have to understand that we made a humongous mistake in a way with it. And there are other answers.
There are other ways, and we can do that. In the smaller scope of it, when we were talking about lessons learned, I wanted to go back after that long speech, go through some details that I think it helps the audience a little bit is that there's a couple of things that you have to do in rural areas. And those key persons, there are key persons that you cannot replace. So even if all are involved in COVID or in hurricanes, if we for some reason hope, not lose the ability to have our emergency management people, our paramedics or EMTs, our police, our firefighters, all they are not replaceable. Because the area is so rural, we don't even have street names so you couldn't work really. You have to identify all those key people. And believe it or not, you have to baby them, you have to take care of them really well, and you got to give them the PPS, the tools, the protection that they need because you cannot replace them. And that's something that we see. But people who are not been through disasters may say, well, he's always there, or there's a police, or there's a fire, those piercings are not really replaceable in urban situations.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think what I hear you saying is that you increase your vulnerability through complacency and increase your resiliency through innovation. That's what I'm hearing now. And I think that that's what our audience will be hearing too. I think that that's a really important lesson because it really is. It can be a little scary, or just because somebody knows more than I do. But if you have a good idea, even if you just contribute to a corner that is resiliency, then you're still done with a local supervisor here. Always calls relentless imperfect progress.
"Act and adjust, act and empower, act and build capacity. But you have to act safely and ethically." -Mark Martin Bras
Mark Martin Bras: Jennifer, you said something about that little corner. This is very important. In our world of think tanks, a world of people working and collaborating, we run into a lot of philosophy, discussion, philosophical discussions to disasters are not super convenient. They're good now. Change the policy now. But don't sit there when the ship goes down, figuring out where's the manual and what's the best to plug the holes, you got to act. So many of the things that we did was act and adjust, act and empower, act and build capacity. But you have to act safely and ethically, and with the way the compliance to the laws and regulations. But that's what organizations like us can do. Government or private sector can't really do it because you can't trust the private sector alone. And you can't count on the government because they don't have the resources, or they have to go to certain bureaucracy to do it, orders and such. So we plug the hole and then say, how do I make it not be a hole like,
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Exactly. Oh, my God, amen to all of that seriously. I think that way, how you keep bringing up ethical ethics is really important because I know that for so much of the service that we've done, that I've done, that I did during the fires, it wasn't really hard to make decisions. Because you just knew that if you're ethical, you know the right thing to do, the priority will come somewhat naturally in that sense. It doesn't, and predictable part of it. Because what you are as you get into the flow of making sure you're always helping your community get to that next stage for the matters of life and death, making sure that like, in our case, the elderly did not sleep on the floor of the gym because that's not okay. So what can we do right then, it's always act and adjust. I'm totally going to steal that. I want to actually sort of finish out by asking you each to relay a story. I don't know what that story is. I'm not asking you in advance. But there is a book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built In Hell. She did all these all this research about what happens in disasters, because often, all that we learn is Dystopian, Oh, God, you have a disaster. And then everyone jumps out and gets out their guns, and they just shoot each other, and then they take their ordered food. But the reality is in most cases, I'm not sure about COVID, we're a little bit weird in America. It's all a little weird right now. But generally speaking, you have a disaster and the community will not turn away, they will turn towards each other. So my question for each of you is, if you can relay for us one story where you knew that you were meeting humanity at its finest in a most unexpected time. I'll start with Kelly.
Kelly Thompson: Oh, wow. Do you have to start with me?
Mark Martin Bras: Yes.
Kelly Thompson: That's a very hard question. I'd have to think about that for a moment. But I will say that one thing that really struck me. It's more of a collection of stories that came out to kind of a life lesson of just being able to be on a phone call with a politicians or owners of solar companies in a room full of people that were experts. But being able to trust instincts and having the guts to trust those instincts to say, No, I don't think that's right for this community was a turning point for me in this whole endeavor of starting ViequesLove, continuing ViequesLove. Because I really wasn't sure of how to continue it after the disaster or even during, but having the guts to know what was right for your own community. Having the local knowledge to be able to say, I disagree with all of you. That was a real turning point for me for Vieques and for ViequesLove because I recognize that I rely on a network of people that really know and love Vieques. And that is the team. That's our stronghold. That's how we know our decisions are going to be made correctly because we're not making it for us. We're making it, we're not even making those decisions for ViequesLove, we're making the decisions for Vieques. That's not really answering your question--
Jennifer Gray Thompson: To what I said before, so I love that too.
Mark Martin Bras: Story in reality of what humanity of it, I already told you which were the satellite boats. I remember my [inaudible] and it did at the time when nothing was touching me because I've forgotten certain humanity. But that was the one, when I saw everybody's sort of react the same way, and then I saw that piece they got to the end, that was definitely something incredible.The stories of the resiliency hubs, and Vieques Conservation Trust, and other people who took this and said, you know what? We're going to be stronger, reminded me of when my grandmother told me, my grandmother turned 104 in two weeks. She told me after Maria and she saw it, and wanted to say, by the way, [inaudible] saved lives in Puerto Rico. And you might need, because it gave a little bit more strength to reporting and I owe him big time because he was grateful. But my grandmother, after she saw me going to the interview, she was like, you were good, and that was great. I don't know what's wrong with you people. I lived through a lot, and we got out, and we cleaned the place. We got whoever needed food, and we got whoever needed water. We hunker down, we put on candles, and we talked, and we read, and we kept living. So it was very interesting to me, this lady would have been 104 years. Think about all the disasters and other things that she's learned that she was saying, Hey, don't forget your humans, you can do this. And that was another human factor when we were all dealing with all the bumped up thing, and what we should do as humans. You got this, you got this, we always have this.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'm going to end it there because I couldn't make it any more perfect than that. I'd say thank you so much to both of you. It's such a pleasure to have to be getting to know you and the work that I'm looking forward to doing with you. I really want to thank Tony Russell from FEMA for connecting us. So in case you ever listened to this, I really enjoyed him.
Kelly Thompson: Thank you for what you're doing. This is a really powerful lesson learned, as we say.
"It's not just a hurricane, it's not just a fire, it's a world thing." -Mark Martin Bras
Mark Martin Bras: Yeah. And the world learns through stories. And you're telling stories, Jennifer, so thank you because I think that when you look at reports, and when you look at the breakdown, they don't carry the same power of this, that you're doing this series. So thank you for doing it. And also bringing us together so we realized that it's a world thing. It's not just a hurricane, it's not just a fire, it's a world thing.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We will do better together, that never has been done. And thank you again, so much.