WKU alumna coordinates hurricane relief group in Puerto Rico

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Laurel Deppen

In the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria, Puerto Rico is in a condition Janel Norton refers to as “chaos.”

Norton, a WKU alumna and accomplished photojournalist, helped organize and run a relief effort for the people of Puerto Rico.

Norton is currently employed at Turin Aviation, an organization dedicated to bringing aeronautical solutions to its clients as a marketing/social responsibility coordinator. A few weeks after Norton began working at Turin, Hurricane Irma hit. This created a corporate social responsibility for the Tampa-based company.

Norton felt the company had the tools available to help the people affected by the hurricane. The Turin team decided to get supplies flown in. Norton and her team began logistical coordinating and developing lists of contacts three days in. Their plans changed when Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria. The team realized they needed to head over to Puerto Rico and get started.

Norton explained how their plans began spiraling into the question, “How are we going to build an aerobridge to Puerto Rico?”

Ed Franco, the CEO, “knows how to move things and make it happen,” Norton commented. Turin became one of the only civilian-run operations conducting an aerobridge.

The team arrived in Puerto Rico Sept. 27. Norton recalls the day as being sleepless. The operation became a collaboration effort which Norton compared to a bureaucracy. She explained how the day was packed with meetings involving mayors from different sectors of the territory. All of them, Norton elaborated, were trying to figure out how to begin to make progress.

Turin had two trucks filled with water and meals. After researching cities that needed the most help, Norton and the rest of her team decided to go out to document and talk to people, helping in any way they could.

Norton recalls seeing elderly people hanging from windows and people crying. These were horrific images that she felt were not being seen by the public. This was the eighth day after the hurricane hit, she explained, and the people were in a state of desperation. Many people were dying from the lack of food and water.

Puerto Ricans began to hear stories about the Federal Emergency Management Agency having a nice place to stay and warm food, while most of them still lacked basic resources. An uprising ensued, leading protestors to stand in front of the Emergency Operations Center.

After assessing the situation the team decided to pull back from San Juan to coordinate airlift into the badly affected areas the morning of Sept. 30.

“The government is about to fail,” Norton said in a text message. “It will be getting much worse if one can imagine such a thing.”

The Turin team still has two warehouses filled with relief supplies and they are not sure what to do next to move them, a situation Norton described as “frustrating.”

Norton commented on the gravity of the situation.

“We have the means, we just need people that are committed and want to do it. These are American citizens, we need to take care of them.” She went on to explain the people of Puerto Rico are alone on an island with no help. “If people don’t help them, they’re done.”

Through all of this, Norton reflected on the importance of journalism in society. She commented on how crucial a journalist’s role in storytelling is, “[We need] people who are there and experiencing it and bringing it back.”

Reporter Laurel Deppen can be reached at 270-745-2655 and [email protected].