Rutgers professor discusses hurricane relief effort in Puerto Rico

Richard Alomar, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, said creating a garden would help the community bond. 
Photo by Rutgers.eduRichard Alomar, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, said creating a garden would help the community bond. 

Richard Alomar, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, traveled to Puerto Rico this past summer to help address issues left by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Alomar is a core faculty member of the Rutgers Global Health Institute (RGHI) and was invited by the RGHI to partake in the initiative to help the Las Carolinas community. 

After Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, one community that was specifically struggling was the Las Carolinas community. One major issue that Alomar and the RGHI team decided to take on was food insecurity, according to an article from the RGHI.

Approximately 70 percent of the 2500 members of the community are elderly and rely on the delivery of free or pay-what-you-can meals from volunteers at their local Center for Mutual Support (CAM), according to the article. Given that the storms drastically changed their way of life, CAM Las Carolinas sought to create a community vegetable garden to continue to feed their members, bring them together and demonstrate their strength.

“The community of Las Carolinas had expressed an interest in gardening and I was asked how (this) might be addressed,” Alomar said. “After a few discussions we suggested that the building and planting of a small community garden could be used as a community building activity.” 

Alomar, a Puerto Rico native who studied agronomy and soils at University of Puerto Rico, said his roots made it an easy decision to help the Las Carolinas community any way that he could.

The work of the project was spread out over two visits in May and July of 2019, and Alomar said he worked with two other members of the RGHI, Ernani Sadural and Margie Heller. During the first visit, the team assessed the community and determined exactly what they had in mind and began working during the second visit, he said. 

“The challenge was to determine want the community wanted, what we were capable of providing and the extent of support there would be to maintain the project after construction,” Alomar said. “The focus would be on vegetable production, planted in beds in the school’s backyard.”

The nature of the tabletop gardens that were used allowed for a physically easier way for the community to do the gardening, according to the the RGHI article. Alomar said the plans were changed drastically between the first and second visit as there were some complications.

“The group in Las Carolinas, mostly women, had been providing hot lunches for community members for (more than) a year,” Alomar said. “Their primary focus was to buy and collect food, cook and transport the meals throughout the aging population. They have distributed tens of thousands of meals in the past 3 years.”

Alomar and the RGHI team realized that the amount of work it would take to install and maintain a large garden was too great based on the already heavy work load of cooking and transporting meals, he said.

“We greatly reduced the scope of the initiative to a smaller potted garden, focusing specifically on the ingredients needed to make sofrito, the base for most Puerto Rican foods,” Alomar said.

He said the trip was a learning experience for him and his team at the Rutgers Global Health Institute.

“I think that the biggest learning experience is how we need to be adaptable to conditions and situations,” Alomar said. “Educators, designers and people knowledgeable in their fields need to consider conditions outside their world view.

Although the project did help and unite the community for some time, the Puerto Rican government needs to do a better job in its efforts, Alomar said. While aid in immediate material and emotional devastation is important, Puerto Rico is hurting on a much deeper level and requires as much help as it can get, he said. 

“They need a government that is responsive, organized and competent,” Alomar said. “They need a revision of the federal laws that limit their economic and social growth and they need the support of everyone and anyone who is willing to help.”

Due to all of the issues that keep getting hurled Puerto Rico’s way, it is difficult for the country to keep up, Alomar said.

“Hurricanes, earthquakes, economic collapse, government unrest and now (the coronavirus disease) COVID-19 have devastated the community and they’re no longer able to cook and deliver meals,” Alomar said. “We hope that the future brings better times.”