Interview with Michael Iván Fernández, Founder and Director: Caras con causa

By Professor Vanessa Marie Fernández

It really means a lot to us to have a citizen to citizen solidarity network go across from the West Coast all the way to the Caribbean.

As part of the Treats for Techos collaboration between 6th grade RBB and JK-K at Hillbrook School (check out our most recent Lenses issue for more on this event), Scott Center Program and Research Lead, Professor Vanessa Marie Fernández, recently interviewed her brother Michael Iván Fernández, founder and director of Caras con causa, on the effects environmental disasters like hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico’s coastal communities. Sixth grade Math teacher, Christina Tran-Kenyon, provided questions meant to help students see the connections between Math and Social Impact.

JK students design posters for the Social Impact Market Place to support Caras con Causa.

Click here to watch the recording of this interview! You can also check out Michael’s Changemaker Profile here and learn about Caras con causa here. Caras con causa is a non profit organization working with communities in the towns of Guaynabo and Cataño in Puerto Rico. Focusing on sustainable development, their programs center on education and the environment. 

Vanessa: ¡Hola Michael!, Good afternoon! Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Welcome everybody. I’m here with my brother, Michael Iván Fernández Frey, founder and director of Caras con causa. He’s going to tell us a little about his organization and about the roof project they’re currently working on to help community members who lost their roofs during hurricane Fiona. Without further ado, Michael, could you please introduce yourself?

Michael: Hello, my name is Michael Fernández, I am the director of Caras con causa. It’s a non-profit, non governmental organization that promotes sustainable development at the grassroots level through community organizing, education, and environmental reforestation. 

And, so we have unfortunately experienced several natural disasters in the last couple of years. Five years ago, hurricane María, several storms between January and March, and now hurricane Fiona. And a lot of our communities are below sea level and are susceptible to climate change and there is a lot of flooding, but also vulnerability in the housing. So, their houses aren’t strong enough, and so in order to help them recover from hurricane Fiona and be ready for the next hurricane season, we are working on a roofs project where we are reinforcing roofs of elderly families so we avoid their being either blown away by a future hurricane, or for their household to get flooded again because part of their roof is blown away. And, it’s important to always give back to the community and think of long term solutions to current day challenges, and this is something we are working on now. 

Vanessa: Wonderful, so the sixth grade class had a few questions for you, about roofs in general, um, the first one is:

Which materials are typically used to construct roofs in Puerto Rico? 

So, there are two ways of building homes in Puerto Rico. One is with concrete or cement, and the other is with wood and corrugated metal. And so, usually the poorest communities have their households built in wood and corrugated metal. Now, these are not wooden structures like households in the United States. These are a lot simpler and smaller. So a typical roof could be anywhere between 20 feet by 30 feet, or maybe 30 by 40, and it does have an incline, but, the  materials are very simple. It’s just a couple of 4X4s, and corrugated metal that can be 3 X 12, and you put those in a row, one next to each other, and you use, either nails or screws. We’re gonna be using screws. Now, these can be what is called constructed up to code. So, the United States established a code for building corrugated metal or wooden roofs for everybody on the mainland and on the islands that will withstand certain, like a 120mile an hour winds. And so we try to make sure that we are rebuilding their roofs using this code, so that they are as strong as they can be. 

So where do you normally get the materials? Where do they originate? Do they come from the US? 

We buy them in the hardware stores. But, currently we don’t have wood production on the island. It’s too small to have forests that can be sustainably managed to produce wood, so we import the wood, usually its pine from the north of the United States and Canada, and the corrugated metals usually comes from Asia. 

So I think we already talked about this. We talked about what the average roof size is for typical homes? You mentioned that already? Right? 

Right. So, a very traditional layout of a house that we work with will be rectangular and so, um, it’ll have two rows of roof in the metal and it usually is 20 X 30 and it can be bigger it can be 30 X 50, but usually it is more or less around 20 X 30.

Ok, and how long does it typically take to install a new roof?

So, you know, there are many variables. It depends on what condition the household is in, how old it is, what condition is the wood of the frame that is actually gonna be holding down the roof and whether or not just part of it needs to be repaired or the whole roof needs to be repaired so it can be a couple of days or a couple of weeks.

And what do people do after their roof is damaged or what do they use temporarily when they’re waiting for the new roof? 

Normally we call these the blue roofs. It’s just a tarp or a tent that is placed over in a temporary fashion and it’s tied down with rope to avoid flooding or leaking and that’s supposed to be a temporary solution while the roof is rebuilt. But, if people don’t have support of non profit organizations like Caras and many other non profits that are working in the area, we are partnering with different organizations to get this done, and people don’t qualify for FEMA, for benefits of FEMA, which is a Federal Emergency Management Administration, if they don’t qualify, then maybe it could be a year, two years, three years with a blue tarp, as opposed to a real roof. So that means that their house is in a critical condition and that they don’t have a stable household or a safe household. So we wanna really make sure we support the elderly population, that maybe they don’t have the means to rebuild their roofs, or maybe their children live in the United States and have sent the money, but they don’t have somebody who can help them get it done, and we’re trying do as many as we can before, like we’re at the end of hurricane season now, by November 1st, and you know, usually it’s from June to November, and the peak of the hurricane season is in September, so we’re done with the worst part. But, we wanna get ready for the next hurricane season. There’s a lot of work to be done. 

About how many houses in the community Caras serves have been damaged? 

So, because of winds and the roofs, as opposed to flooding, I would say that our goal is to repair around 15 roofs. 

Um, and then, I think you already talked about who performs the labor. So, Caras performs the labor and community members chip in?

So we have a multidisciplinary team where we’ve partnered up with volunteer carpenters, people who are learning to become carpenters, and they are doing their practice hours with us, another organization that trains these carpenters, and they are a partner organization of Caras, and we provide also the social workers and the community coordinators who go into the community and coordinate with community leaders, the family members. They interview the family, see what needs they have, and the social worker makes sure that we can connect them to any other need that they may have. Maybe they lost furniture or clothing, we’ll try to provide those. But maybe they need to go back to the doctor and get checked up, so we’ve been providing transportation for that as well or maybe they need a couple of meals, so we do their grocery shopping for them while the get re-stabilized after the emergency period, and now they’re in what we call the recovery. And so we’re past the emergency and in what we call the recovery phase. 

And so, you’ve talked a little bit about preparing for the future. What are ideas or hopes/solutions you have for the future? 

So I think that we all need to accept that climate change has arrived, and it’s been here for a while, and that affects sea level and the amount of heat that there is during a hot season so there’s going to be more droughts, as you know, but also more hurricanes, cause hurricanes get formed when the ocean is warm. And so, we just need to accept the fact that we are on the highway of hurricanes that come from crossing the Atlantic and go up to the South East of the United States. And so, to prepare as opposed to react, is the best way. It’s called climate change adaptation. So we need to think of ways of either making our households stronger or, very sad or unfortunate, would be to have to consider moving because of the vulnerability of the place where you are living. But that involves human beings, so it’s very important that we always be very sensitive, and have empathy for those who are in need and serve them with our time and talents. Another way that we are working to mitigate the effects of climate change and hurricanes is by reforestation, which is part of our mission, and so we are planting several types of trees, including mangroves that absorb great quantities of water, absorb carbon monoxide, and emit a lot of oxygen to help mitigate flooding, but also improve the air quality and reduce temperatures, and, this way, also we get ready for the dry season.

And one last question, What would be something you want students in the mainland to know about something they can do or how they can help.

So I think that everybody can contribute, no matter where you are, and first I would say get involved in your own community. And not only help with your community, but other communities. So thank you very much for helping us and for your interest and generosity. It really means a lot to us to have a citizen to citizen solidarity network go across from the West Coast all the way to the Caribbean. I think also it’s being aware in our day to day actions of how we can reduce our carbon footprint and try to counteract climate change by reducing our trash, reducing water consumption, participating  in environmental activities, and giving back to the community.

Thank you so much Michael, we really appreciate that you took time for us. We know that you have a very busy schedule and you travel alot and are working hard in your community. One last thing, I would like for you, if you can share the importance of how Caras works in two very  particular communities in the towns of Guaynabo and Cataño and that you do work in the community and that you create relationships and the importance of creating relationships to do this community work.

So, we’ve been working in the area for twelve years and it’s through community participation that we drive the sustainable development efforts that we carry out. So it’s very important to support  the local community and respect their vision of future and try to support them in achieving it.