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U-M student from Puerto Rico helps in island’s recovery efforts

February 13, 2018
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Volunteers use a digger to clean up an abandoned house that had become a source of mosquito and rat infestation. Photo courtesy: Amilcar Matos-Moreno.

ANN ARBOR— By the time Amilcar Matos-Moreno, a doctoral candidate at U-M’s School of Public Health, got to Puerto Rico during Thanksgiving break, it had been two months since Hurricane María had punished the island as a Category 4 storm.

Although Matos-Moreno and his wife had time to prepare themselves for the devastating scenes they were about to see, it was still a shock to see their beloved island in such a state.

“Just as you got to the airport, the infrastructure was still in shambles,” said Matos-Moreno, who grew up in Puerto Rico and still has family there.

Matos-Moreno’s best friend Alfonso(left), community member and volunteer Ruben (middle), and Matos-Moreno (right) help with clean up of the neighborhood. Photo courtesy: Amilcar Matos-Moreno.

“Warehouses and businesses I had seen and were there before, were gone. In the city, buildings and houses were empty. People had just packed up and left. Outside the city, houses that had flooded were still full of mud, now hardened. Trees were uprooted. It was a very sad sight.”

Matos-Moreno and his wife, Yabetza Vivas, talked to their family in Puerto Rico to see how they could help, and connected with an organization getting donations to the island. The couple set up a donation box at the U-M School of Public Health, and with friends from Puerto Rico started a GoFundMe page that raised more than $5,000 in donations.

They then flew to Puerto Rico where they delivered goods and meals, and helped with clean up—one of the most grueling tasks many Puerto Ricans still faced, Matos-Moreno said.

In Toa Baja, a city that had endured six feet of water, people had piled up refrigerators, mattresses and other debris on the street, unable to carry them to the designated disposal locations.

But many others didn’t have the strength or resources to even clean up their homes, Matos-Moreno said. Like a partially blind 66-year-old woman who lived with her two young grandsons. She was still sleeping on an air mattress set on top of six inches of dried mud when they got there.

Her next door neighbor had died during the storm, and without family to clean up, the house had become a source of mosquito, rat and cockroach infestations for the whole neighborhood.

The group was able to rent a digger and dump truck to help the neighbors clean up junk from the streets—a small victory in the face of the many challenges ahead, Matos-Moreno said.

Next month, Matos-Moreno and his wife are returning to Puerto Rico on a mission trip to help put up tarps and build wooden roofs for those homes that lost them.

Going home

Volunteers distribute hygiene packages, lunches and clothes while the food is prepared. Photo courtesy: Amilcar Matos-Moreno.

While these trips are temporary, Matos-Moreno said he’s eager to go back to the island as soon as he finishes his degree.

He graduated with a bachelor’s in social sciences and a master’s in public health in biostatistics from the University of Puerto Rico before moving to Michigan with his wife, who studies orchestra conducting at Bowling Green State University.

Matos-Moreno said it was his boss at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, where he worked as a biostatistician for two years, who sparked his interest in health epidemiology. Now enrolled at Michigan’s School of Public Health, Matos-Moreno plans to do his doctoral dissertation on the effect workforce migration has had on the elderly population in Puerto Rico, where one in four people are 65 or older.

“When I graduate from Michigan, we’ll move back to Puerto Rico,” he said. “I’d like to start a Ph.D. program in social epidemiology because no program exists on the island right now. This is very important because people from Puerto Rico usually come to the mainland to study and then stay here because the income opportunities and quality of life, among other things, are better.

“But I think we need people who go back home and introduce new ideas to people on the island. That’s what I want to do in three years and I am encouraging others to do the same.”

More Information:

  • Support Matos-Moreno’s March mission trip to Puerto Rico where he’ll be part of a group putting up tarps and building wooden roofs for those who lost the roof of their homes.
  • Epidemiology at the U-M School of Public Health.
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