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Helping Puerto Rico: A U-M student’s journey

March 14, 2019
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ANN ARBOR— Ten months after Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico, Amilcar Matos-Moreno, a student from U-M School of Public Health met an elderly couple who’d been living in a makeshift house since the storm ravaged their home.

“They lived in a very rural part of the island,” Matos-Moreno explained. “My team and I had donated and installed pieces of a roof, a door, kitchen tools, and a communal water filter for the town.”

At first, Matos-Moreno had no idea about the impact of Hurricane Maria, last year’s category five storm that devastated the island he calls home. It wasn’t until a couple weeks after the natural disaster that he realized it was worse than he could have predicted.

“I’ve spent most of my life in Puerto Rico, so I’ve lived through quite a few hurricanes,” said the third-year doctoral candidate in SPH. “I never thought this hurricane would devastate the island the way it did.”

It was then that he and his wife, Yabetza Vivas, decided to get to work.

“We made calls and encouraged friends to get involved with us,” he said. “We started a GoFundMe to cover equipment and travel costs, and we ended up raising over $5000.”

And so began Matos-Moreno’s first Hurricane Maria disaster relief mission which took place of Thanksgiving break last year. He and his team delivered over 500 meals to people in need. Two more relief projects followed—one over spring break, another during the summer.

“In March, we joined a mission trip where the goal was to install tarps for those still lacking roofs over their heads. This summer, we worked at a summer camp for older adults where we discussed hurricane season preparation.”

The summer project was funded by SPH’s Public Health and Assistance Support Team, a program that helped Matos-Moreno find five U-M students with the proper skillset and Spanish fluency for the job. His project leadership skills, he said, are a product of his experience in the US Army Reserve.

His specialty in social epidemiology has informed Matos-Moreno’s understanding of disease in the context of human populations. At the summer program in Puerto Rico, his knowledge of epidemiology helped him with interviews and data collection on disaster recovery in older adult populations.

“As an epidemiologist, we don’t often get a chance to collect data with these situations,” said Matos-Moreno. “We used what we learned to teach older adults how to adapt to new housing situations after the disaster.”

After he finishes his PhD, Matos-Moreno plans to move back to Puerto Rico to find work as a professor. He explained there is a mass migration of young professionals leaving the island, an issue he works passionately to combat.

“With the hurricane, this issue is only getting worse,” he said. “But I always urge Puerto Ricans I know here to go back.”

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