Cathy Kennedy

Photo: Courtesy of Cathy Kennedy

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A Port in the Storm: Cathy Kennedy

When the nurses landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit last fall, they gasped at the destruction. And the rest of the island was in even worse shape: Violent winds had ripped roofs off houses, and mudslides had leveled neighborhoods. After days without fresh water, some people were drinking from contaminated creeks.

"The level of chaos was staggering," says Cathy Kennedy (standing, fourth from right), the leader of a team of 50 nurses from the nonprofit Registered Nurse Response Network who had come to provide emergency medicine. Kennedy was in charge of coordinating healthcare volunteers. From a command center in a San Juan sports arena, she sent nurses to buy bottles of water and haul them via school bus to decimated barrios. She organized teams to distribute tubes of hydrocortisone cream to treat rashes caused by dampness.

Every American needs to see this, thought Kennedy. After two weeks in Puerto Rico, she returned to her job as a neonatal nurse at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Roseville, California, and started speaking out about what the nurses had witnessed. At a Washington, D.C., press conference, she joined Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Puerto Rican members of Congress to plead for aid; in November, she testified before Congress. And when FEMA suggested ending rations—even though almost a third of the island was still dark—Kennedy sounded off again.

This time, it seems, the government listened. In February, Congress appropriated $16 billion in disaster relief funding. Yet the territory is seeking an estimated $94 billion to rebuild and fortify against future storms, Kennedy notes, "and we need to keep holding the government's feet to the fire." Stay tuned.

—Kate Rockwood