Turning Pain into Action: Disaster Relief from 2,000 Miles Away

It’s autumn semester. The sun is still shining, the leaves are still on the buckeye trees and Liane Davila-Martin was settling in to the final year of earning her master’s degree in epidemiology at Ohio State.


  • Janaya Greene
May 17, 2018
Ohio State's Puerto Rico Association

That’s when the hurricane hit, and Davila-Martin found herself 2,000 miles away from home with little to do to help her friends and family.

On September 21, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Flooding in Puerto Rico left millions without fuel, food and electricity.

While residents of the island were hit the hardest, the effects of the disaster were felt far beyond the Caribbean. Many Puerto Ricans on the mainland mourned for their home and their loved ones—like Davila-Martin did.

“We couldn’t communicate with our families because the communication towers were down, and not knowing if they were okay — if they were safe and sound — was probably one of the worst feelings I’ve experienced in my life,” Davila-Martin says.

As an organization and as Puerto Ricans, we couldn’t just stand with our arms crossed, which is why we decided to do a fundraiser and supply drive to help our island and our people back home. 
—Liane Davila-Martin, MPH '18                           

But she was far from alone. Davila-Martin turned to her fellow members of the Puerto Rican Student Association (PRSA), over which she presides. The student organization responded by raising more than $2,300 in aid and collecting ten pallets-worth of desperately needed supplies.

“As an organization and as Puerto Ricans, we couldn’t just stand with our arms crossed, which is why we decided to do a fundraiser and supply drive to help our island and our people back home,” Davila-Martin says. “We had over 30 volunteers help pack the boxes with the supplies. Different colleges and departments at Ohio State reached out to ask how they could help and people from outside of the university bringing donations.”

PRSA’s donations were sent to communities in Puerto Rico like San Juan, Aguadilla, San Germán and Mayaguez, Davila-Martin’s hometown.

Davila-Martin will extend her goodwill toward beings with more than two legs as she pursues a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State following graduation this spring. 

 From one land-grant to another 

When CPH Dean William Martin II, MD, learned of Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico, he couldn’t idly watch the island struggle in need of resources. With help from public health leaders and the private sector, Martin spearheaded an initiative to send water-purifying technology to Puerto Rican residents.

“It was apparent from the beginning that the federal response to Puerto Rico would not be as it occurred in Florida or Houston,” Martin says. “That’s when the sense of obligation increases. It’s what we do.”

Martin reached out to Dharma Vázquez Torres, PhD, dean of University of Puerto Rico School of Public Health, and discovered that one basic need was apparent: clean water.

In addition to lack of power, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans were living without safe drinking water. In fact, the island’s water sources were already in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act before Hurricane Maria hit, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

With the help of Procter & Gamble, World Vision, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health and the Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, Martin was able to send PUR technology to the island’s land-grant university.

Procter and Gamble’s PUR, a powdered water-purifying mixture, removes disease-causing bacteria from polluted water. To lessen the impact of an already developing issue, Martin obtained 12,000 individual PUR sachets, each able to purify 10 liters of dirty water. This technology has allowed families of four in Puerto Rico to have clean water for four to six months.

Extending disaster relief efforts continues to pose a challenge for public health leaders, but with continued dedication and partnerships of public health institutions across the world, it may not remain so difficult.

“What I’m trying to figure out is how we can support the school long-term and involve the OSU Puerto Rican Student Association,” Martin says. “Then as we establish this, can we start partnering with other schools and programs in public health?”

In addition to PUR technology, environmental scientists at the University of Puerto Rico received Procter and Gamble soap products and buckets for additional distribution.

“What a land-grant university like Ohio State can do is work with another land-grant university and find how we leverage the skill sets and knowledge that we have in partnership,” Martin says. “It’s a wonderful testament to what is unique about land-grant universities and their commitment to the community.”

United for Puerto Rico

By José Rodriguez

It has been eight months since Hurricane Maria devastated my home island of Puerto Rico. I grew up in San Juan’s Condado neighborhood. The oceanfront area is a vibrant and diverse pedestrian-oriented community that’s a hub for arts, entertainment and tourists. Hurricane Maria not only ravaged my old neighborhood, it forever changed the lives of the millions of Puerto Ricans living on and off the island.

Learning that the island did not have electricity, edible food and clean water, among other human needs, was unfathomable. Carrying the guilt that I am living on the mainland, away from the devastation and family, rubbed salt in the wound.

From students to faculty and staff to alumni, Public Health Buckeyes recognize a problem and put both feet forward to find a resolution. —José Rodriguez

Today, parts of the island are still experiencing one of the biggest blackouts in U.S. history and many citizens are still without clean water. But students like Liane and PRSA continue to prove that location isn’t a determinant factor in who can and can’t help those in need.

In my time with the College of Public Health, I am consistently inspired by our community’s willingness to take action. CPH alumni stepped up with great generosity and supported the purchase of items like solar lamps and medical supplies that were distributed to residents in the center of the island, which was particularly devastated.

From students to faculty and staff to alumni, Public Health Buckeyes recognize a problem and put both feet forward to find a resolution.


About The Ohio State University College of Public Health

The Ohio State University College of Public Health is a leader in educating students, creating new knowledge through research, and improving the livelihoods and well-being of people in Ohio and beyond.  The College’s divisions include biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health behavior and health promotion, and health services management and policy.   It is ranked 23rd among all colleges of public health in the U.S. by U.S. News and World Report, and also includes the top 7-ranked MHA degree program.  The College provides leadership and expertise for Ohio and the world through its Center for Health Outcomes, Policy and Evaluation Studies (HOPES), Center for Public Health Practice, and the NCI-funded Center of Excellence in Regulatory Tobacco Science (CERTS).