In a tiny corner of a tiny town on the southeast edge of Puerto Rico, Porfirio Fraticelli thinks constantly of water.
For years, the retired police officer has volunteered his time to make sure the 250 or so households in the Barrio Real community of Patillas have safe water to drink. But since Hurricane Maria struck on Sept. 19, there has been none, at least not from the usual sources. Nor has there been the electricity needed to make it safe.
Residents, many elderly or sick, were drinking water from nearby streams, putting themselves at risk of contracting water-borne diseases.
But help has come from some unexpected sources: Israel and Chicago's Jewish community.
Little more than a week after the hurricane hit, IsraAID, an Israeli NGO that JUF long has worked with to respond to major disasters, had an emergency team in several of Puerto Rico's poorest areas, providing water filtration, medical, and mental health services. Those efforts are supported in large part by Chicago's Jewish community, through the Disaster Relief Fund the Jewish Federation created last fall.
In the town of Patillas, IsraAID's WASH team (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene)-working closely with Fraticelli and students from the Humacau campus of the University of Puerto Rico-first installed hundreds of domestic membrane filters in homes throughout the area, providing immediate access to drinking water. It also offered hygiene workshops for residents and hands-on filter-installation sessions.
Once the immediate needs were met, IsraAID's water engineer, Mori Neumann, worked with Fraticelli and the community on a detailed assessment to find the best long-range solution to the area's water issues.
Together, they designed a gravitational water filtration system that does not rely on electricity. Construction of the system, which is being built in partnership with the San German branch of the Inter American University of Puerto Rico, is expected to be completed in August.
"It is really great working with you," Fraticelli said to Neumann and the IsraAID team. "You have excellent technical knowledge of our water systems and the long-term solutions for our community." He said he trusts IsraAID not only because its engineers are very knowledgeable, but because they have listened to him and his community's needs.
Chicago's Disaster Relief Fund also is supporting IsraAID's work in other parts of the island, as well as the efforts of Minnesota-based NECHAMA: Jewish Response to Disaster, which is working initially in the town of Loíza. That group, with the help of many volunteers, is repairing homes, cleaning and gutting houses that have not yet received assistance, and removing debris in areas where chainsaw work still is needed.
A group of Chicago-area volunteers, organized by the Jewish United Fund's TOV Volunteer Network, will travel to Puerto Rico later this year to work with both IsraAID and NECHAMA.
The Federation's Disaster Relief Fund has supported more than $1 million in efforts to aid the hardest-hit areas of Puerto Rico, as well as Houston, Florida, and parts of Mexico hit by a devastating earthquake.
While Federation partners like IsraAID and NECHAMA often are among the first to respond to major disasters around the globe, aiding the immediate relief efforts, they frequently remain for months or even years, to rebuild devastated lives and communities.