When Phil Cowdell, president of GroupM's [m]Platform, NA, heard his Puerto Rico colleagues were in need of help, he hit the stores, packed his bags with 170 pounds of supplies supplies and hopped on a plane to Puerto Rico.
"I felt I just needed to get down here straightaway and get on the ground, so you can see what's real," he said via phone from Puerto Rico.
Cowdell told us about what he's seen and what people can do to help.
How did you make the decision to go down there?
Obviously when anything crazy happens, we always reach out to our teams. I was texting [MediaCom's Carlos Calancha] about how the team was. When it got to the middle of last week and they were saying things were still bad, there was no power, there was no water, then I was just trying to work out when I could get a first flight down.
What's it like there now?
I arrived here and it was still no main electricity, no water supply, generators, but [those were] running on gas. The queues for filling up your $15 ration of gas was 3 to 4 hours. The longest I heard was one friend queued for 10 hours to get $15 of gas.
Without gas, the generators don't run, the water doesn't get clean, the lights aren't on, the AC isn't on. You have an idea what it's like for the 3.4 million people here—even if their houses still have roofs on, most houses even if they're still complete, they have flooding damage, broken windows. Or if they're in building that hasn't been that badly damaged, they've got no light, no AC and no water. It gets pretty grim.
One of my colleagues who got gas came and picked me up from the airport. We headed to the office and we did an inventory of the products we brought down. I brought down about 170 pounds of supplies. Enough [water purification for] 300-plus gallons of water. And then we started building out a priority list of who needed what first.
One of the people at MEC, her mother is elderly with diabetes and had no medication, so she was a priority to try to get a flight out. Then we had another guy who had a young baby. There's no AC—all the babies are covered in rashes because you can't clean them, bathe them and the heat is terrible. So it was, how do we get to them and get them out on a priority flight?
What was next?
So, day two, we then headed over to the command center for FEMA. Frankly, we were trying to sign up as volunteers, but they didn't know how to use our skills. Basically we got turned away from FEMA after about two hours of being there offering to help.
[When I got back to the hotel where I was sheltering], that's when I was using social media to make sure people heard and saw what was going on. I was using LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to start sharing messages and stories with people back on the mainland.
Yesterday, we were working with our clients down here, one of which is called Suiza, which is the biggest dairy company here. Francisco [Pérez-Corujo] has mobilized all of his trucks and has gone around and was collecting supplies. Yesterday, he delivered half a million meals to people across the country. This is a private company. The guy is doing it because it's what you do.
[San Juan mayor] Carmen Yulin Cruz came out. We got Carmen to connect with Francisco. I talked to her about what we were trying to do.
I've reached out to Unilever, Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive, Kimberly-Clark. There's short-term immediate need for people who have no food and have no water and they've run out of medication. We're trying to mobilize anything that is in the island in a warehouse or near the island.
Francisco has put at his at our disposal all of his trucks. There's trucks here and drivers here and people are really moving around the island.
What should people in this industry be doing to help?
Now we know what's really going on and how to work around the bureaucracy and the politics. We know who to talk to to get stuff done. So it's really about the private sector coming together to do what they can to help the people who are desperately in need.
Talk to clients who have any relevant product, medications, personal hygiene, water, food, etc. and encourage them to cut whatever corners they have to do to get things here fast and quick, because people need it now.
What else do people need to know?
I heard terrible things happened in Vegas last night. And we've just got to make sure in the news cycle, the attention, things like the three and a half million Americans here don't get forgotten when the news cycle moves on to other things.
What's next for you?
Now, I'm currently at the airport trying to get to St. Thomas. I had to get back to New York tonight to be in London tomorrow, and then I'll get back here.
When I flew in, all outbound flights were prioritized with people with medical needs, people who are pregnant, people with young children. What's interesting is that most of the people want to stay. Because they have to look after their homes, rebuild and look after family. It's their island, they're trying to fix it , and they're taking responsibility for it.
There's no lawlessness, it's very controlled, people are standing in queues. The spirit of the people is really, really impressive.