In Wake of Hurricane Fiona- Combined Israeli-U.S. Volunteer Aid Group Becomes A Force Multiplier of Human Intervention in Puerto Rico

On Friday, September 23rd, a team of seven first responders and mental health experts arrived in San Juan to assist residents in the country find relief in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. The battered residents, particularly in the southwestern side of the island country, were hit hard by the storm, with many having lost power and water for extended periods of time. After quickly gathering supplies and consulting with local officials and rescuers, the international team (5 of whom came from Israel with another two joining from the United States) set out to begin providing assistance. 

Gavy Friedson (left) and other team members meet with the heads of emergency services in Anasco to coordinate relief efforts

“Our team specializes in providing emergency medical services as well as psychological first aid,” said mission leader Gavy Friedson, who hails from Washington D.C. and serves as the Director of International Emergency Management for United Hatzalah of Israel. “For this mission, we brought four experts in what we call Psychotrauma and Crisis Response, who have been working to assist people in coping emotionally after being exposed to traumatic situations that came about as a result of the hurricane. Many people here have lost their homes and businesses and simply don’t know how to go forward. Our team focuses on stabilizing them emotionally and psychologically and works with them to rebuild their local support network so that they can recognize that they are not alone and they are not helpless.”

Tamar Schlezinger (PhD. in Social Work) provides food to a man in Anasco Puerto Rico

Upon the team’s arrival in Puerto Rico, they were greeted and welcomed by Rabbi Mendel and Rachel Zarchi, who head the Chabad community in San Juan, and were immediately connected to Levid Ortiz the Director of PR4PR who has been spearheading support efforts for many of the underprivileged communities. Ortiz is connected with community leaders all over the island and has been extremely helpful in connecting the relief team from United Hatzalah with local towns and communities in dire need of help, who have not yet been assisted by other organizations or the government. 

Avishai Lefkovitz, social worker and member of the Psychotrauma and crisis response unit, treats a woman in Ansaco Puerto Rico suffering from emotional trauma resulting from Hurricane Fiona

“As soon as we got hit by Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Rico suffered a lot of damage to people’s homes,” said Ortiz. “Many people have been without potable water or electricity since the storm struck and we are in need of a lot of help. I want to thank United Hatzalah of Israel for their support today for the people of Anasco and look forward to working with them for the duration of their mission.”

Friedson assisting local residents to clean their homes in Anasco

Once the team began their activities in the city, people began to take notice. “There has been a tremendous amount of local interest and support for our mission,” explained Friedson. “While we were going about our initial preparations, people took notice of our uniforms and the Israeli flags on our shirts and began to inquire as to our mission. When we explained what we are doing, they expressed a desire to join us. One of the security guards at the hotel we are staying at told us that he is a trained EMT and a current medical student and asked to join our team. We graciously accepted him and he became a translator for us as well as one of our medical personnel.”

Members of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Team, Tamar Schlezinger, Gabriel Rourka, and local medical student Luis Vasquez, provided psychological first aid to a family in Anasco

The guard was not alone, as another six people, locals from San Juan who wanted to help provide whatever assistance they could to those hit hard by the storm, joined United Hatzalah’s delegation, and, the once seven-person team, now became fourteen. “People all over want to help in any way they can,” Friedson added. Our mission is in essence becoming a force multiplier for good here on the island and I hope that continues,”

Avishai Lefkovitz providing psychological first aid to a young boy in Anasco

Over the weekend, the team made it to Anasco, a town, and municipality on the western side of the island. There they met with the First Lady of Anasco who explained that many people in the town and outlying region were suffering from continued fear and trauma dating back to Hurricane Maria and that Hurricane Fiona reopened many old wounds and fears. “Our teams treated more than 50 people who were having great difficulty coping after the recent storm.” 


In addition to members of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit, the initial delegation from Israel and the U.S. was also comprised of four EMTs, Friedson included, thus allowing the team to provide medical care for anyone who they find to be injured or ill. Liran Mazkeret, a volunteer EMT who hails from Herzliya and is part of the delegation spoke about some of the medical cases that the team has experienced thus far. 

Levid Ortiz, a local Puerto Rican who joined United Hatzalah’s relief mission comforts locals in Anasco

“We met with a number of residents who were ill and exhausted,” Mazkereth explained. “Some have been without enough water for many days and were on the verge of fainting. We gave them food and water and checked their vital signs. One person was in a very serious state and her vital signs were very low. We instructed her family to call emergency services and have the woman sent to the hospital as she required immediate medical care. There are a lot of people in need of help on the island, and we are focusing our efforts on the areas that have not yet been reached by other aid organizations or emergency services in order to lighten the burden on existing services and agencies. We are coordinating our efforts with local response organizations.”   

Luis Vasquez, a Puerto Rican medical student who joined United Hatzalah’s relief mission checks the vital signs of a woman in Anasco

To support United Hatzalah’s efforts in providing relief for the victims of Hurricane Fiona, please click here:

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