SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Last September, Hurricane Maria's 150 mile-an-hour winds led to widespread flooding, knocked out power and left millions of Puerto Ricans without clean drinking water.
Just three weeks after the storm, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, visited the island, not knowing how involved she might become or who might work with her to help ease the suffering.
Devastation 'Like a War Zone'
"You saw a devastation that was like a war zone," she remembered, "the refuse and trees still scattered around the streets of San Juan. The electrical poles hanging tenuously. The lack of potable, reliable drinking water – these were all the norms, not the exception. The circumstances got worse and worse in other places. It felt like we had to do something and not just bring bottled water. Not just be there with foodstuffs. We had to figure something out that was long term that would address some of the real needs of people on the ground."
Like Weingarten, Bill Horan also witnessed the storm's devastating effects. At the time, Horan was the president of Operation Blessing, founded by CBN's Pat Robertson.
Polar Opposites Come Together for Common Cause
In many ways, the two organizations are polar opposites. Weingarten champions liberal causes and counts Hillary Clinton as a long-time friend. Operation Blessing is an evangelical humanitarian organization with a number of conservative friends and donors. One thing, however, brought Horan and Weingarten together – concern for Puerto Rico and a friendship with Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan.
"It was literally a blessing," Weingarten told CBN News, "because we met with the mayor literally several hours before I left on Sunday."
Horan remembers "Randi said 'what can we do in the US to help you open the schools?' The mayor said 'We can open without electricity. We can open without fans and lights but we cannot open without safe water.'"
Weingarten remembers that Cruz pointed to Horan and said: "this guy can show you the things that would work here."
Within a week, the AFT and Operation Blessing had birthed Operation Agua. The goal: deliver 100,000 water filters to as many people and schools as possible. The Kohler filters require no electrical power and each unit can hold 23 liters, filtering up to two liters of clean water per hour.
A Frank Conversation
Weingarten says before the two organizations launched their endeavor, she had a frank conversation with Horan.
"I said to him 'you know who I am and I know who you are and when we hear on Twitter or Facebook or other snarky comments about 'how dare you work with each other given the ideological differences' I said to him 'Bill I'm in what say you?' and Bill said 'I'm in.'"
Since then, the AFT has raised almost $2 million to ship close to 80,000 water filters to Puerto Rico. The filters allowed public schools to open across the island last fall and have provided reliably clean drinking water for an estimated 389,134 people. And Operation Agua plans to meet its goal. It has targeted early October to finish distributing its initial goal of 100,000 filters.
Here's why it matters: contaminated drinking water is a long-time problem in Puerto Rico. Before Maria, poor management combined with geography issues led to a water supply in frequent violation of federal standards. After Maria, power outages virtually prevented water treatment, making it easy for Puerto Ricans to get sick from drinking their own water.
Fernando Silva, director of the Institute of Sciences for Conservation in Puerto Rico, has seen it happen. Speaking to CBN News during an Operation Agua distribution event in the town of Salinas he explained, "if they don't have access to drinking water – safe sources of water – they will get infected with bacteria which was the case here and in many of the communities on the coastal areas.
Thanks to Operation Agua's filters, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have safe drinking water in their homes or schools. And thanks to Operation Blessing and the AFT there's a new reason to believe that people can put aside their differences for the sake of a greater good.
"We need to ensure that people understand you can find common ground in the caring of people," said Weingarten," and that – that story is as important as what we have jointly delivered to the people of Puerto Rico."