Slow recovery after Hurricane Maria

Veterinarians reopen clinics, aid animals despite infrastructure damage
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People are leaving Dr. Elvin A. Reyes’ community in eastern Puerto Rico.

He lives near Humacao, one of the coastal cities where Hurricane Maria made landfall Sept. 20, 2017. He since has signed hundreds of health certificates needed for people to move with their animals to Florida, Texas, New York, and Massachusetts.

In December, Dr. Reyes estimated fewer than 20 people were living in about 45 houses in his neighborhood, where electricity and water supplies were yet to return. He; his wife, Judi; and the younger of his two sons, Gabriel, were among those who had left, staying instead in a second home near Humacao.

By Dec. 14, 61 percent of Puerto Rico had electricity, 93 percent had water service, and 81 percent of mobile phone towers were operating, according to Puerto Rico government updates at In the east, including Humacao, 84 percent of the region had water service.

Other statistics showed lasting damage: 173 gas stations and 53 supermarkets remained closed, and 662 people and 34 pets remained in shelters. But 95 percent of the milk industry was operating, as were all ports and airports.

Dr. José Arce, who lives in Puerto Rico and is a member of the AVMA Board of Directors, said during a November Board meeting that, despite resumed commercial traffic, supplies to his clinic were being delayed up to three weeks.

Dr. Reyes said delivery delays, combined with local inventory taxes that encouraged keeping short supplies, created an inventory shortage among medical clinics, including veterinary clinics. In addition, clinics without generator-run refrigerators have been unable to keep products that require refrigeration, such as certain vaccines and antimicrobials.

While Dr. Reyes had equipment to supply oxygen for his own clinic, he said oxygen in particular was in short supply among veterinary clinics.

Dr. Arce told fellow Board members he was among Puerto Rico residents who thought they were ready for hurricanes. With a storm of Maria’s magnitude, he said, "there’s no preparation."

But he also said, citing a statement from Gov. Ricardo Rossello, there is "no hurricane stronger than Puerto Rico."

Dr. Reyes reopened his clinic, Centro Veterinario, the day after the hurricane passed. A generator provided limited electricity for 11 weeks until service was restored Dec. 6.

He and his clinic staff have worked with a community center to care for animals in need and provided services in the coastal area of Punta Santiago following the hurricane. He is among veterinarians who have vaccinated thousands of animals, especially against leptospirosis and rabies.

Dr. Elvin A. Reyes (right) sees an ill kitten in Pasto Viejo in eastern Puerto Rico during a response effort aided by Puerto Rico’s VMA, the Colegio de Medicos Veterinarios de Puerto Rico. The kitten is among those with diarrhea that would be hospitalized at his clinic in Humacao. (Courtesy of Dr. Elvin A. Reyes)

He has treated pets, most of them dogs, with skin conditions, vomiting, and diarrhea, but has seen surprisingly few respiratory tract infections. Despite the power outage, he has performed some surgeries.

Puerto Rico’s health department also has indicated since October that pets staying in shelters would receive vaccines against rabies and leptospirosis in a collaborative campaign from the department and Puerto Rico’s VMA, the Colegio de Medicos Veterinarios de Puerto Rico.

Dr. Walter Colon, president of the colegio, said veterinarians across Puerto Rico have organized and provided community animal health services. Some are reaching communities that seldom used veterinary services prior to the hurricanes.

Dr. Colon said more than 70 veterinarians worked in the colegio-backed effort to provide primary and preventive veterinary care across Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Veterinarians are trying to help others down the long road to recovery, and he has seen progress, he said.

Dr. Colon left Puerto Rico Oct. 9 with his wife and two of his grandchildren. They stayed with his son’s family in Tallahassee, Florida.

His 16-year-old granddaughter, 12-year-old grandson, and their parents had no electricity, occasional running water, and no bottled water at their home in Dorado, which is along the north coast west of San Juan. The nearest grocery store had only nonrefrigerated items, and even the selection of canned foods was diminished.

The 16-year-old has health problems that could be worsened by poor water and high temperatures, Dr. Colon said. His granddaughter needed to leave, and her brother wanted to go with her. Their parents, Dr. Colon’s daughter and son-in-law, stayed behind for their jobs.

On Dec. 13, Bloomberg reported that 231,000 Puerto Ricans had traveled to Florida airports in Orlando, Tampa, and Miami since early October.

Animal shelters in Puerto Rico are filling up with pets and strays, Dr. Colon said. As people have left the island, many had to leave their pets behind when told there was no room for more animals on outbound flights.

Dr. Colon said Puerto Rico needs more animal adoptions or faster means to send pets to their owners.

Dr. Colon and his family returned in December. He describes himself as semi-retired, and he still works at the hurricane-damaged Hipodromo Camarero racetrack.

Horses are running at the track again three days a week. Too few horses remained to resume five days of racing each week, and barns remained in poor condition.

He said horses were euthanized after conditions deteriorated at the track, and he has heard the losses could exceed 50 horses.

For Dr. Reyes, living with limited electricity, water, and phone service had gained a sad, normal feeling. Those who have stayed are spending their savings on diesel fuel for their generators and repairs for their homes.

In a mall across the street from Centro Veterinario, few of the storefronts were open by early December. Dr. Reyes also worries that many physicians seem to be among those leaving, a neighbor among them.

As for those who are staying, Dr. Reyes is telling people to include pet vaccinations among their hurricane preparations. The hurricane’s aftermath shows the importance of preventive medicine for animals and humans, he said.

Related JAVMA content:

Devastation in Puerto Rico (Nov. 15, 2017)