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Non-Profit Organizations in the Midst of COVID-19 - Interview with Rafael Torrech

Josue Mendez

Rafael Torrech San Inocencio is a disaster management consultant based in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. In a recent article for El Nuevo Dia, Torrech stressed the necessity of non-profit organization (NPOs) participation in the midst of this current pandemic. In this interview with Centro staff member Josue Mendez, Torrech expands on some of the ideas from his article and the direness of the situation.


Could you expand on points of conversation you brought up in your article, specifically touching on how exactly NPOs are left out of the planning dialogue?

What happened directly after the recent disasters in Puerto Rico - Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the earthquakes earlier this year - was NPOs organizing their resources immediately - long before the government did anything. Communities worked urgently on what became the generally accepted situation while the government arrived weeks after. NPOs addressed many needs, among them food, shelter, medical supplies and the like. Some did it voluntarily or through the support of local and stateside philanthropies. Others eventually received reimbursements through FEMA’s Public Assistance Category B, which supports eligible services offered during and after a disaster.

What’s different in this situation is the type of emergency declared by the President. FEMA sent a notice in response to the Presidential declaration which could allow nonprofit organizations to receive
reimbursements for services that they are and will be providing, such as food, transportation, rescue
for people who are alone, and others. However, the way this FEMA letter was written, any such support has to be under the direction of the (Puerto Rico) Government in a way that is consistent with its emergency plan. While there are many NPOs providing assistance, this important requirement raises the question of whether there will be reimbursement. 

Beyond the available funding, the government (of Puerto Rico) has not reached out to NPOs and coordinated with them on what they can do to address the needs of those at risk or sick from COVID-19. Even health NPOs say there has been no type of coordination by the government to maximize the efforts put together by NPOs that are either working remotely or on the ground during this lockdown. This is the main concern that we are trying to tackle. Before and after the release of the article, NPOs reached out to express their views. Social workers, victims of domestic violence (which surged during this lockdown), and others have expressed that the government is ignoring them, their efforts and their needs for the COVID-19 emergency. 


How are these NPOs adding value to their communities?

NPOs have been the first-responders in disasters in Puerto Rico. They know the demographics of their communities, focus on those who are most vulnerable such as the elderly, and know their turf much better than the government does. The government response has been slow and has only addressed those that are at a higher level, however, many public employees are at home. Unless you’re essential, people are being asked to stay at home due to the lockdown. NPO's proximity allows them to better address those that are high-risk in low-income neighborhoods. 


Touch on the reimbursement factor some more. What organization can you think of should be eligible for said reimbursement?

FEMA responds to natural disasters, however, this is a different type of disaster than usual. The majority of FEMA workers are also in lockdown. Typically organizations would be reimbursed under FEMA’s Emergency Protective Measures (Public Assistance Program-Category B). Measures include search and rescue, emergency care, and provision of food and water, among others. However, with the COVID-19 Emergency Declaration, eligible emergency protective measures taken to respond to the emergency are under the discretion and direction of public health officials. Eligible assistance reimbursement now extends to emergency operation center costs, emergency medical care, medical sheltering, government working overtime, etc.

A local community-based organization in Humacao, Puerto Rico called Programa de Educación
Comunal de Entrega y Servicio (P.E.C.E.S., Inc.) started working remotely as soon as the lockdown was called. However, since they have an already-established network, they know who needs food and medicine and are unable to secure these resources among vulnerable and high-risk individuals and families that cannot and should not leave their homes during the lockdown. They have been mapping the community and making sure that those who are at most vulnerable and are being taken care of, including transportation to hospitals and other basic needs. Like this NPO there are many more in Puerto Rico right now that are continuing to work as safely as possible, despite the lockdown, to fulfill their mission of service to their communities.

Rafael Torrech San Inocencio will be working with Centro on an online-webinar on Friday, March 27, 2020. RSVP here: