Six years ago, Isabel Rullan and a group of friends were discussing the upcoming gubernatorial election in their native Puerto Rico and wondering whether a new leader would bring an end to the island’s increasingly dire financial situation. “From there on, we very naively decided to start a movement,” Rullan said. “Then we realized, oh, we have to figure this thing out.” They called the ensuing nonprofit ConPRmetidos — a play on the Spanish word “comprometido,” which means committed, that translates to “with Puerto Rico.” More than 40,000 people have left the island since 2004, typically in search of better jobs and more economic stability. For the past six years, ComPRmetidos has focused on convincing members of this growing Puerto Rican diaspora to reinvest in the island — in other words, fostering Puerto Rican development for and by Puerto Ricans. But in September 2017, two devastating hurricanes struck Puerto Rico, and the nonprofit’s focus shifted. We spoke to Rullan, a former documentary production manager who is ConPRmetidos’ the founder and executive director, about rebuilding after the hurricane and looking to the future. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did the hurricane change things?
The day Hurricane Irma was coming, which was two weeks before Hurricane Maria, I called the president of our board and told him that we needed to figure out what we were going to do. We realized we were going to need money, so I started a crowdfunding campaign. [Irma] came but it wasn't that bad. It hit between the municipalities of Culebra and Loiza, which are on the east coast. We raised $15,000 during those two weeks, but we decided to leave the campaign open just in case — it was hurricane season. And then came Maria. [Since then], we've been able to raise over $3.5 million.
Since you're in the Caribbean, hurricane season is a yearly threat, but last year was really devastating. What kinds of hurricane relief efforts was ConPRmetidos involved in?
The first thing we did was get satellite phones. We distributed them to different nonprofits that were also distributing supplies. Some of the organizations were also lending phones to people so that they could call their family members, because we had no cell phone signal for around two weeks — nothing at all. We also got generators and we distributed them to different small businesses so they could stay open. We installed a water purification system that filtered thousands of gallons of water in a different part of the island, so people could go there and get clean water.
Has the financial crisis exacerbated these problems?
One of the situations that is going to happen in the near future is that we're going to have a lot of houses that are going to be abandoned. People left the island, or they were really badly hit by the hurricane and aren't able to rebuild the houses. There are many businesses that have closed. But at the same time, there's a lot of eagerness to keep moving forward. Those of us who want to stay, we don't see any alternatives but to keep moving forward and keep working together.
A lot of people were displaced by the hurricane. Are they starting to come back?
According to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, 135,000 Puerto Ricans left the island after the hurricane. I know that some people have returned since then. I've talked to teachers and they've told me, "X amount of kids left, and now some are coming back."
There's a phrase I've seen a lot, in reference to rebuilding after the hurricane, which is "build back better."
Right now we're in the process of installing solar energy panels in several community centers. The first one we installed was in a battered women's shelter. We're also in the process of building 50 roofs in Barrio Playita and Barrio Cantera, which are very poor areas of San Juan that were very badly hit. We're doing that in collaboration with other organizations. It's also going to be an apprenticeship program where they're going to teach 15 local people to build the roofs in a way that is more resistant to natural disasters. We've also given out grants, we gave a grant to another organization to do a battery recycling program.
We have to make sure that the disparity among social sectors doesn't increase after this rebuilding process happens. We have to be sure to be inclusive. We're closing that chapter, as far as immediate relief goes, and we're now in the process of looking out to what long-term rebuilding looks like.