On September 18th, just after Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico, I received a phone call that would drastically change the next few weeks of my life. I was about to embark on not one, but two, major relief missions on behalf of United Hatzalah in order to provide much-needed aid and assistance to residents of Puerto Rico following the damage caused by Hurricane Fiona. As Fiona was dying down, and the relief mission in the Island territory was well underway, I and the rest of the organization, kept a watchful eye on Hurricane Ian as it approached Florida. Once the hurricane made landfall over the islands to the west of the panhandle and in the area of Naples and Fort Meyers, it was decided that a second mission needed to be dispatched to assist in Florida and that I would once again be at the helm.
I am extremely proud of what we managed to accomplish in Puerto Rico. Most of the team members didn’t know each other prior to the mission, but we worked seamlessly together unified by the common goal of helping others. Our team was made up of EMTs, social workers, and psychologists who volunteered to put their busy lives on hold in the middle of the holiest period of the Jewish calendar and fly to a foreign country thousands of kilometers away. They left their families for the sacred purpose of helping to save lives and heal people’s emotional wounds in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona and we accomplished a lot and touched a lot of lives.
We intervened in poor communities that had yet to receive any outside assistance in the wake of the devastating destruction of the hurricane. We went from house to house, distributing food and humanitarian aid to families, treating them psychologically, and providing them with basic medical care. We also met with local first responders and police officers, who were understandably exhausted and overwhelmed. We not only provided them with treatment, but we also provided them with training and tools that they could use in order to continue helping themselves and others suffering from similar emotional and psychological stress and exhaustion. That was the force multiplier that we always look for when undertaking these missions. How to build a larger network of assistance so that when our mission is over, the people we are helping can continue to help themselves in a sustainable fashion for the long term.
We were sent as representatives of United Hatzalah but we also felt that we were representing the State of Israel and the values of its people, who are always ready to help when disaster strikes anywhere around the world. It was heartwarming to see these communities’ sudden love and recognition for Israel due to our activities and the assistance that we provided them. For us, it was a relatively small thing. For them, it meant the world just knowing that people came from a foreign country to help. It showed them, in the most fundamental way possible, that they were not alone and that other people cared about them and worried about them. Many of them told us about their desire to visit one day.
I wish to thank Rabbi Mendel Zarchi and his wife Rachel who run the Chabad Jewish Center of Puerto Rico for hosting our team and connecting us with people all over the island. I also want to thank Levid Ortiz who runs the organization PR4PR, without whom our mission would not have been the success that it was.
I had to leave Puerto Rico directly to respond to Hurricane Ian in Florida. Thanks in part to my experience in Puerto Rico, as well as previous disasters that I responded to, which include Hurricane Irma in Florida, I am well prepared for the current relief mission. I am likewise confident that our team in Florida will be able to use the organization’s accumulated knowledge and techniques that have been field-tested time and again, to empower individuals and communities who need our help in the aftermath of the hurricane. We have already met with a few dozen people here and helped them cope with their current situation, after having lost everything. Our work is to mentally and psychologically fortify them so that they can begin to rebuild their lives. It is some of the most difficult work that I have ever had to do. The greatest tools at our disposal, are showing the people affected that they are not alone and that they can regain control of their own situation. It isn’t easy, but if done properly, these two simple things can help prevent the already dire situation from becoming overwhelming and debilitating and those are things that can lead to an acute traumatic reaction which we want to avoid at all costs and severely harm a person’s mental health
On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, I do not see anything more befitting than to be out in the field, helping people, and saving lives.
Gavy Friedson is a volunteer EMT with United Hatzalah who lives in Washington D.C. with his wife. He serves as the organization’s Director of International Emergency Management and has responded to several major disasters including Hurricane Irma in South Florida in 2017. He has a Master’s in Public Health, specializing in emergency management. Most recently, he led the team’s relief mission to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Fiona and is now leading the relief mission to Florida in response to Hurricane Ian.
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