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People Helping People: How CEOs Can Make A Difference In A Crisis

We have reached the 6-month anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall on Puerto Rico, and the storm's impacts are far from over.

hurricane maria

As we approach the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall on Puerto Rico, public attention may be moving in other directions, but the storm impacts are far from over. Yes, the wind and the rain have stopped, but I have been there twice – once immediately after the storm and again this month – and I can tell you, Maria is still affecting the lives of Puerto Ricans every day.

Almost 10,000 Puerto Ricans are currently living in temporary housing in 37 states and the U.S. territories. More than 135,000 have moved to the mainland, draining the island of skilled labor. About 150,000 homes and businesses still do not have power restored. Even worse, a recent storm closed roads and schools, forcing more families to evacuate.

At moments like these, it’s easy for inertia — and far worse, indifference — to set in, especially when tabloid stories like Stormy Daniels and an alleged affair over 12 years ago dominate the news cycle. Meanwhile Americans still suffering from real storm damage and living without electricity or running water is largely absent from daily coverage.

Digging in and working hard on one problem at a time can be incredibly difficult and requires unrelenting focus.  But this is precisely the moment when our focus and resolve is needed most. The people of Puerto Rico are fellow Americans, and I believe we have an obligation to care for and support them just as much as we do people in Florida, Texas, New Jersey or any other state struck by natural disasters.

“It may not make splashy headlines, but it makes a difference to those in need, and that is what America is all about.”

What’s more, times like these offer corporate leaders a critical opportunity for business leadership. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in almost all major institutions has dropped dramatically in recent years. When asked to identify the “most broken” institution in the United States, 59 percent of respondents said the government, while just 7 percent said business. Seventy-two percent of workers trusted their employer to act ethically, and nearly 70 percent expected businesses to prioritize establishing trust over increasing profits and improving services. Additionally, 64 percent said businesses ought to initiate change rather than expect government to make the first move.

We saw these realities play out in all three catastrophic hurricanes that hit the U.S. last year. Immediately after the storms, recovery efforts became a hot-button political issue, with media and politicians across the political spectrum trying to frame the debate to their benefit. However, businesses quickly and quietly stepped in with real support to help those affected by the storms – whether it was Airbnb enabling people to offer up free rooms to those forced to evacuate, or Tesla donating battery systems that run on solar energy in Puerto Rico.

PenFed Credit Union has and will continue to engage in Puerto Rico. Immediately after the storm, we gave borrowers relief on their loan payments and provided employees with food, water and power generators. We opened our ATMs to deliver cash without fees to everyone on the island. Earlier this month, we brought “Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band” to perform a free, public concert at Fort Buchanan to boost morale for everyone on the island, including military, civilians, and volunteers whose resilience has driven rebuilding efforts across Puerto Rico. Later this year, we will deepen our investment in Puerto Rico, breaking ground on a new branch that will inject at least $4 million into the local economy and create new jobs.

These initiatives make a huge difference – and not simply for those affected by natural disasters. They help foster a sense of unity, especially among employees. Further, they force corporate leaders to focus beyond the bottom line and get creative about how they can make a specific, substantive impact.

Above all, they offer businesses the opportunity to give people what they desire more than a job and a paycheck: a sense of purpose and being part of something larger than themselves. A PenFed employee in Puerto Rico, despite not having running water, was so dedicated to supporting our efforts on the island that she bathed with a sponge out of a bucket every morning so she could come to work looking her professional best. It strikes me as ironic and painful that she can push through immense physical setbacks to get to work, but we as a nation can’t stop squabbling long enough to do something very simple to complete the mission and help those in need.

This is where corporate leaders can make a meaningful difference. Instead of making one-time donations and short-lived time commitments of your human capital, focus your resources on one significant effort and commit to it for the long haul. With all the challenges and changes in the world, consistent commitment to doing the right thing goes a long way – whether it is sending food or donating batteries. It may not make splashy headlines, but it makes a difference to those in need, and that is what America is all about. As the saying goes, “many hands make the load light.” Let us stay committed and make a lasting difference.


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