Strength That Can’t Be Shaken

Feb 17, 2020 7:20 AM ET

Strength that can’t be shaken

An unbreakable spirit drives Walgreens team members in Puerto Rico to help after earthquakes deal the island another setback.

It was the morning after Dia de los Reyes, a yearly observation of the Christian epiphany that brings joyful celebration to the streets of Puerto Rico. But Libni Cardona didn’t have time to reflect on the festivities of the night before; she had awoken to the news that her beloved island had once again been attacked by Mother Nature.

Cardona is no stranger to the ramifications of natural disasters – a Walgreens district manager for an area including part of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, she’d already faced her fair share of weather-related tragedies in the communities she served. So when she heard a 6.4-magnitude earthquake had rocked the southern portion of Puerto Rico, her first reaction was anguish.

“We have many team members in the affected area, and one store that suffered great damage due to the earthquake,” she says. “Quickly, many questions passed through my mind: How are our people and their families in that area doing? What needs will they have? How will they take refuge?”

But the question that burned strongest was, “How can I help?”

After ensuring that all the team members in her district and their families were safe and accounted for, Cardona and her team jumped into action. Walgreens store managers, along with their spouses and children, began collecting essential items – baby formula, bottled water, toys, toiletries –  from their stores to deliver to neighboring communities in need. 

Hugs all around
Five days after the earthquake, the group visited Yauco, a town heavily impacted by the disaster. The local Walgreens was among the buildings that had sustained extensive damage, and Cardona knew the team members there had been through a harrowing experience.

“As soon as we got there, there were hugs all around,” recalls Cardona. “I could see it in their faces, thanks, tears and smiles. We wanted to bring hope, peace and tranquility to our team members and their families and make sure they knew they were not alone.”

To make sure they knew this, Cardona and her colleagues wrote inspiring messages on sandwich bags, so that when they handed out snacks to hungry volunteers and displaced citizens alike, they’d get an extra dose of kindness.

Cardona and the store managers arrived in Yauco just in time to help set up a mobile pharmacy in the parking lot of the damaged Walgreens. 

“The purpose of these mobile pharmacies is to help the community stay adherent to their medicines, even in times of crisis,” says Tyler Hough, director of business continuity and retail product loss, who has helped lead the Walgreens disaster response team for the last three years. “Typically, it takes nine to 11 days for us to get one of these mobile units up and running, but we were able to get this one ready in five days.”
The comfort(ing) zone
The success of these mobile pharmacies relies on pharmacists who volunteer to staff them, such as Emily Robles, a Walgreens pharmacist in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. The pharmacists spend hours in trailers or tents asking patients about medications, answering questions, checking blood sugar, taking blood pressure and more.

Sometimes, they have to dole out a different sort of medicine.

“There was an older woman who didn’t need any medications, didn’t have any conditions, and wasn’t hungry or thirsty,” says Robles. “But she was so afraid and nervous that there might be another earthquake that if she felt anything, even a truck rolling by, she would start crying. She just kept wanting to hug us and asking us not to go, so we let her stay with us until she felt safe.”

In addition to hugs and prescriptions, Robles realized there was something else she could give: flu shots.
Getting the yearly flu vaccine is something many of us forget to do in the best of circumstances, but for those worrying about basic needs like food and shelter in the wake of a disaster, it may be one of the last things on the to-do list. But considering how quickly the flu can spread, the post-earthquake challenges of basic sanitation, poor nutrition and overcrowded shelters make protection against the virus even more important.

Robles contacted her supervisors and quickly got equipped to deliver about 200 free flu shots to people in need, not only at the shelters and mobile pharmacies but within the neighborhoods suffering the most destruction.

“Due to concerns over whether their homes are structurally sound, a lot of people in the community are sleeping in tents outside their houses,” explains Robles. “They won’t leave because they are afraid they might lose whatever they have left. So we went to visit them at their homes, and gave them flu shots that way.”

After witnessing firsthand the fear and confusion plaguing the hardest-hit parts of the island (which has weathered blow after blow, starting with Hurricane Maria in 2017), Robles just wants her fellow Puerto Ricans to feel like they’re being truly cared for.

“It’s important to me to get out of my comfort zone and give the care they deserve,” she says. “And it helps that as a company, we are usually the first ones there when these things happen. We don’t hesitate. We act quickly, and we get there as fast as we can.”

To address the devastating impact of recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico, Walgreens is mobilizing in a variety of ways, including:

  • Implementing the Walgreens Earthquake Prescription Assistance Program for displaced patients with insurance coverage who are unable to pay their prescription copays. The program provides up to a 30-day supply ($500 benefit) per prescription claim at no cost. It has been activated for a total of 38 stores on the island, helping to ensure that displaced patients can get the prescriptions they need at no cost.
  • Hosting flu clinics and providing vouchers for free flu shots for individuals age 7 years and older.
  • Opening our mobile pharmacy in Yauco.
  • Delivering medications 24/7, including the weekends, to communities significantly impacted by the earthquake.
  • Coordinating and delivering bulk donations of baby formula, diapers, soap, sanitizer, oral hygiene, deodorant, OTCs, and sunscreen.
  • Raising funds for the Red Cross in our stores to directly support disaster relief. As of this publication, these efforts have resulted in nearly $800,000 donated for relief efforts.