Last September, a powerful hurricane devastated Puerto Rico, leaving millions of residents without homes, power or basic necessities. 

Dr. Iran Barrera, assistant professor in the Department of Social Work Education, spent his summer in the recovering region as part of his work with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leaders Fellows Program. In addition to surveying the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Barrera also examined mental distress and the role of social determinants of health in recovery – all of which will be documented for a future research project.


Barrera saw firsthand the rubble and destruction Hurricane Maria left in its wake. As he traveled to different barrios that were critically impacted, he saw homes with roofs that were severely damaged and had mud destruction all the way up to the ceilings. Other homes still lacked clean water and electricity. Barrera said the challenges for residents to find hurricane relief was immense. 

“Many people applied for FEMA support,” Barrera said. “However there were/are many barriers to receiving such help, like needing internet to access the application, the language of the application not being understood by many elderly residents and other requirements that had to do with land ownership, which is a very complicated matter to comprehend in Puerto Rico.”



Throughout his experience, Barrera was both touched and impressed by the sheer resilience the Puerto Rican community showed, despite the hardships they faced. One woman he met, in particular, left him inspired.

“This woman was a pharmacist, but turned community organizer/activist the day after the hurricane,” Barrera said. “She stated that she could not go back to being a pharmacist after what she had witnessed.”

Barrera also took note of how the community came together in their times of trouble.

“I was very impressed by their community organizing,” Barrera said. “It was neat to see one barrio, Villa Calma, was able to get a social profile of their entire neighborhood. They identified each home and everyone that lived there and documented their specific needs, including medication.”

Last year, Barrera was selected to participate in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leaders, a national research team to promote a culture of health. Along with his colleagues, Barrera will work to identify health risks that stem from living in communities with high rates of poverty, crime, and linguistic isolation, similar to Puerto Rico.



To learn more, contact Barrera at You can also read more about him in the Sept. 5th issue of Vida In El Valle

-Written by Jason Duong, CHHS Communication and Multimedia Student Assistant