Education Isn’t Always Top of Mind After Natural Disasters, But It Should Be

Words by Maggie Kohn
Nov 27, 2019 9:55 AM ET
Article

This article series is sponsored by JetBlue and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

When natural disasters strike, people and corporations are generous, donating millions of dollars worth of food, medicines and other needed supplies. But often, in the urgency to address immediate life-threatening realities, the long-term needs of rebuilding communities are overlooked.

In fact, according to Jim Alvey, senior director of disaster recovery at the nonprofit Good360, 70 percent of donations occur within the first two months after a disaster, with only 5 percent allocated to critical long-term rebuilding and recovery.

Often it is children who are especially affected over the long-term, with researchers interviewed by the Washington Post reporting that academic performance and graduation rates generally drop after a disaster, as routines change and schools are forced to shutter due to damages.

Hurricane Maria makes the long-term impact of disaster all too clear

Findings like these quickly became reality when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing an estimated 2,975 people. It was a hit close to home for the New York-based airline JetBlue, which has more flights to the island’s three main airports than any other carrier.

JetBlue and the JetBlue Foundation have invested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education programs on the island for many years, as part of their focus on building a more diverse pipeline for the aviation industry. But instead of pulling out after Maria, the company dug in, helping with short-term relief and long-term recovery projects and investing an additional $100,000 in STEM projects on the island only a few months after the hurricane.

While JetBlue stepped up like many companies as soon as Maria hit with donated supplies and chartered flights, Ursula Hurley, president of the JetBlue Foundation, knew that wasn’t enough. For Hurley, the decision to up its investment in STEM education was all about focusing on the future.

“Our STEM programs are focused on building a pipeline of diverse pilots and aviation professionals over the long term,” she told TriplePundit. “After disasters, support for education doesn’t always come front-of-mind, but we think it’s extremely important.”

When disaster strikes, life grinds to a halt

One grantee that benefited from the additional funding was Girls in Aviation Puerto Rico (PR), which was already one year into a previous multi-year partnership with the JetBlue Foundation when Maria struck.

The program, hosted by the Inter American University of Puerto Rico, works to increase access and awareness of the aviation industry among girls in fifth through 12th grades.

Like other STEM and aviation programs that the JetBlue Foundation supports, Girls in Aviation seeks to reverse the dismal statistics of women in the industry, statistics that both Hurley and Caroline Ocasio, associate professor at the School of Aeronautics at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico and leader of Girls in Aviation PR, can recite from memory: In the United States, less than 7 percent of commercial pilots are women, and women make up only 3 percent of all aircraft mechanics and service technicians. 

“Programs such as this are so needed,” Ocasio told 3p. “We are trying to pique the interest of girls and empower them with knowledge.”

When Girls in Aviation PR started in 2016, more than 70 girls quickly enrolled in the free program, which offered monthly seminars at the School of Aeronautics at the San Juan Airport and mentoring from JetBlue pilots. But when Maria hit, everything changed.

“We went into survival mode, it was day-to-day,” Ocasio remembers. “In my house, just like many other neighborhoods in Puerto Rico, we had no food, no water, no gas for the first two weeks. If you went to the grocery store, the shelves were empty, there was no food to sell. It was a very difficult time.”

And adults weren’t the only ones affected. According to research conducted after Maria, nearly 50 percent of children’s family’s homes on the island were damaged, nearly a quarter of youth helped rescue people, and more than 30 percent experienced shortages of food and water.

Schools across the island were closed for months, leaving families isolated. At home, many were sheltered indoors to protect them from downed trees, precarious structures and snapped electric cables. Electricity outages splintered communication and access to cellphones.

Ocasio herself had no way to communicate with most of her students, and the university where the girls had met was significantly damaged and without electricity. Ocasio was forced to put the program on hold for the next five months. For the girls she did have access to, she would send them emails and activities to do from time to time just to keep engaged.

When January arrived and communications had been partially restored for some residents, parents started to contact Ocasio telling her that their daughters were “dying to get back to the program.” She remembers their first meeting after Maria.

“It was very emotional. These girls, just like everyone else in Puerto Rico, really needed an escape from their daily reality and dealing with all these issues. We were here to support them,” Ocasio told us. “And that meant a lot.”

Girls thrive in the aftermath of the storm

Nearly two years later, despite losing a number of girls and their families who emigrated to the U.S. mainland, Girls in Aviation PR is back up to its pre-Maria enrollment of 70 girls and is aiming to reach 100. Of the original group, seven girls have graduated from high school, with five enrolled in college pursuing careers as pilots and one pursuing a career in meteorology.

As Ocasio tells it, the program has not only inspired the girls, but it has given them resilience.

She remembers one June night in 2018, not even a year after the hurricane, when the JetBlue Foundation hosted an event to celebrate the girls, attended by women pilots and other professionals from JetBlue . “It really showed the girls that we had [the company’s] support, they were there to work together with us, and we would continue despite what we all had been through. They knew then that they were just a phone call away.”