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After deployment to Puerto Rico, Spokane Valley volunteer describes difficult, uplifting experience

Valley resident Devin Biviano, 35, signed up as a first-time American Red Cross volunteer through the chapter based in Anchorage, Alaska. (Courtesy of Devin Biviano)
Valley resident Devin Biviano, 35, signed up as a first-time American Red Cross volunteer through the chapter based in Anchorage, Alaska. (Courtesy of Devin Biviano)
By Amy Edelen The Spokesman-Review

When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, it caused catastrophic damage to the island – flooding roadways, collapsing power grids and destroying homes. Spokane Valley resident Devin Biviano, who studied international relations and disaster management response in Australia, knew he had to lend a hand.

“The storm was one thing, but the post-storm effect was more traumatic,” he said.

Biviano, 35, signed up as a first-time American Red Cross volunteer through the chapter based in Anchorage, Alaska. His partner, Marie, started a job around the same time as a disaster workforce engagement specialist in Anchorage.

Biviano took online and in-person classes through the American Red Cross on first aid and disaster response. After the month-long process, he boarded a flight sponsored through JetBlue with four other volunteers and headed to Puerto Rico.

“We were definitely nervous,” he said, but added the Red Cross training prepared them for what could be the worst-case scenario in Puerto Rico.

Biviano said they were told to bring snack bars and water filtration systems. The electricity was scarce and there was danger of downed power lines and mosquitoes.

Biviano had anticipated a lush, green land. Instead, the responders were met by the sight of brown trees stripped of leaves. In one village, he saw a home with its living room still intact, thought the roof of the house had been stripped away. Supermarket shelves stood empty, and businesses in tourist areas were on the verge of closing.

Through those sights, he said, the full amount of destruction became clear.

San Juan was hit hard. The usually vibrant city turned to pitch black once the sun went down, Biviano said.

“It was kind of a no-man’s land,” he said.

Inhabitants of every square foot of the island had their lives impacted, he said.

Biviano and the other volunteers slept on cots in a church. During the day, with the help of local police, they distributed food to about 400 families from a 40-foot box truck. Within 10 to 15 minutes of each arrival, hundreds of people would be gathered in line.

“They were amazing, patient people. The people were quite stoic and not in a victim mentality,” he said. “They were pretty matter-of-fact (that) their lives had been turned upside down.”

Biviano spent three weeks in Puerto Rico and, by the end, there was light at the end of the tunnel.

“It was nice to see some improvement coming, everything from the trees a bit greener to restaurants opening up,” he said. “But, people don’t necessarily feel that on the ground on a daily basis.”

Biviano said a highlight of his deployment was talking to the residents of Puerto Rico.

“There was plenty of tears, lots of hugs and lots of requests for us to come back,” he said.

Biviano said there’s this idea that Puerto Rico is a foreign land, but it’s not much different than communities in the U.S.

“They deserve the help they need right now. They are an American territory,” he said. “We have to set high standards to how we respond to crisis. Easily, we could be the ones on the other side of the story.”

The American Red Cross received a large response from folks wanting to volunteer after Hurricane Harvey, said Lisa Miller, Regional Communications Officer for the American Red Cross in Alaska.

“We have people that come back, get rest and deploy again,” she said. “It’s pretty common, actually.”

The volunteers get to know people in communities they’re working in and see the difference they’re making, she said.

“A common response to that in Alaska was that it was one of the most physically and emotionally draining, yet rewarding experiences,” she said.

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