As senior vice president and general counsel of Clayco, a real estate, architecture, engineering, and construction firm, Carmen Hernandez ’87 regularly works on multimillion-dollar building projects. Her latest project, however, is a personal one: bringing relief to her home town in Puerto Rico in the wake of last September’s Hurricane Maria, a category five storm that devastated the island and left millions without power.

Carmen Hernandez '87Hernandez went to elementary school in Comerio, Puerto Rico, located in rugged mountain terrain one hour south of San Juan. Her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all born in the town, and all got married in the same local church. Although Hernandez moved to Massachusetts with her mother when she was 15, she made yearly trips to visit her relatives in Comerio. “When the storm hit, it was very frustrating not to be able to receive any news about them, but there were no communications coming out of the Island for the first two weeks,” she says.

Hearing a radio interview with Comerio Mayor Josian Santiago, a longtime friend, Hernandez learned that the flooding River Plata had damaged more than 1,500 homes out of the 7000 in the town. “FEMA wasn’t there. There wasn’t any federal, state, or local help. All the residents were fending for themselves,” she says. “Even though the military had dropped off some MREs [Meals, Ready to Eat], what they really needed was rice and beans and drinking water.”

Hernandez and her sister Evelyn decided to set up their own relief efforts. The sisters donated $25,000 to the effort and set up a GoFundMe page to invite friends to help match their contributions.

When Clayco CEO Bob Clark heard about Hernandez’s initiative, he volunteered the company’s plane to help.  She and her sister loaded the plane with 700 pounds of medical supplies, as well as solar lanterns, generators, and water filters. They also arranged to purchase a container of rice, beans, and cases of water from a local distributor on the island, as part of what she describes as “Phase one” of their relief efforts.

“It is so refreshing to support a cause where the person who is asking you to donate was going to be on the ground doing the relief work,” says Tony Schofield, Clayco’s chief financial officer, although he adds that he wasn’t surprised that Hernandez would do the job herself.

Schofield says that he learned of Hernandez’s adventurous streak when he “met Carmen in her office for the first time and noticed that she had a big Harley motorcycle emblem on her wall.” Hernandez participates in an annual three-day 220-mile bicycle ride through the Northeast to raise money for the Young Survivor Coalition, an organization that supports women under 40 who are diagnosed with breast cancer. Schofield also notes that Hernandez is deeply involved in the Clayco Foundation, a nonprofit that supports medical research, as well as the company’s Construction Career Development Initiative, which helps underserved students gain exposure to different kinds of jobs in the design and construction industry.

On November 1, with the support of Clayco and her colleagues, Hernandez traveled to Comerio for five days. “We were among the first to arrive on the ground in Comerio,” Hernandez says. “There was no cell phone service, no water service, no electricity, and it was 100 degrees outside. My family was lucky—everyone was generally okay and in good health. We just focused on the people who lost their homes and were in dire need.”

Carmen Hernandez brings toys to children in Comerio, Puerto RicoPhase two of her relief efforts came a little over a month later, in mid-December. By then, the town’s hospital, bank, and supermarket had power, but no homes had electricity and few had water service. The town’s 1,700 children were unable to go to school. The Hernandez sisters created a toy drive—“to bring a little bit of holiday joy,” Hernandez says—and also gave food vouchers and solar lanterns to needy families identified by the mayor’s office.

Hernandez is still in communication with Comerio’s mayor, and is working to create some permanent solutions (“Phase three,” she says) to facilitate the current recovery and to help the town weather any future disasters. She is hoping use the donations they have continued to raise in order to subsidize water cisterns and, potentially, solar power systems for some homes. “There are a lot of elderly people in the town who won’t have electricity until the summer,” Hernandez says. “But if they could use solar power to run their refrigerators for insulin or breathing and dialysis machines, it would make a big impact.” 

Posted February 20, 2018