During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, mental health professionals observed that emotional and social reactions to a catastrophic event manifested fully a year or year and a half later. In Puerto Rico, seven months after hurricanes Irma and Maria, symptoms of stress and anxiety are starting to surface, particularly in children and in certain vulnerable families.
"After the hurricane, the triggers that provoke violence in the family increased: savings ran out, one of the parent who worked lost their job, or maybe the mother was the only one working and is now unemployed. These families were fragile before the hurricane and after the hurricane that fragility became a ticking time bomb set to detonate," explains Yadira Pizarro Quiles, executive director of ESCAPE, a non-profit organization specializing in the intervention, treatment and prevention of child abuse and family violence.
Since September, when the two storms passed, ESCAPE received a significant increase in service requests at its three centers. These services include educational seminars for schools, churches, community centers, private companies, and municipalities on a variety of topics such as healthy parenting, discipline, prevention of abuse and domestic violence, balancing family and work, how to prevent bullying, how to prevent sexual abuse of minors, among other topics. They added psychological services to address anxiety caused by the hurricanes, and new seminars for adults and children on issues related to the prevention and management of stress and anxiety after disasters.
Additionally, at the San Germán center, which also covers the municipalities of Sabana Grande, Hormigueros, Mayagüez and Cabo Rojo, from September to April they assisted 915 children and adults in child abuse and domestic violence situations. These families received specialized counseling services, coordination of services, and support from volunteers, as well as psychological and educational services. The center also offered free psychological services to the community.
At the Gurabo office, they ended the month of April with 389 adults and children receiving services at their Early Head Start center. This included 120 children from two months to three years of age and their families who received day care, early intervention, nutrition, social work and health services. In addition, 15 pregnant women and their families received counseling, guidance and support in the pre, post and peri-natal stages.
The Metropolitan Area center in Santurce, on the other hand, was destroyed during Hurricane Maria and currently operates from a space in the Gurabo center. It serves the municipalities of San Juan, Carolina, Guaynabo, Trujillo Alto, Bayamón, and Caguas offering education and prevention services, parenting courses, and seminars. Even without an official headquarters they reached 873 children and adults as of the end of April through their education services. They hope that by relocating back to San Juan they can resume offering specialized counseling and service coordination while working directly with families.
Thanks to emergency funds such as the FORWARD Puerto Rico Fund, ESCAPE hired new resources, such as a service coordinator for San Germán, increasing the number of people they can help. They also created a reserve fund to give continuity to their services in case other funding is delayed or absent.
ESCAPE's work is only beginning. During the next months the emotional consequences of the hurricanes will be more pronounced. Pizarro Quiles has already observed an increase in the lethality and intensity of violence and aggression towards children.
"Organizations like ESCAPE that work with prevention have to be ready for everything that's coming, because undoubtedly there will continue to be an increase in requests for services and that's good. It's fantastic that people are looking for help. The challenge for organizations and the island is for those services to be available to the people looking for help," she points out.