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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance delegation travels to remote communities in Puerto Rico

Thousands remain without power after Hurricane Maria

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Damage from Hurricane Maria can still be seen some 60 days later along the western coast of Puerto Rico in the town of Mayagüez. (Photo by Rick Jones)

MAYAGÜEZ, Puerto Rico — Reaching remote, mountainous communities in the western part of Puerto Rico can be challenging. Downed trees and power lines along with mudslides have kept many roads closed. But for the narrow roads that are open, there is barely enough room for one car.

The roads are clogged with thousands of twisted and tangled trees downed by Hurricane Maria nearly 60 days ago. Branches are mingled with power lines. But the barren, black and brown trees from a few weeks ago, are beginning to turn green. Vegetation is growing again.

Work to remove debris and repair roads is often hampered by the continued heavy rains that pound the mountain, starting new mudslides and causing newly established utility polls to fall in the over-saturated earth.

A Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) delegation made its way this week into the remote areas of the island, passing through hilltop towns like Las Marias, which stands for “town of sweet oranges.”

“They used to have a lot of orange trees, but they’ve almost all disappeared because of the absence of bees,” said Manuel Silva, chair of the synod’s program division. “But remarkably, Maria brought the bees back.”

The delegation finally made its way to the town of Maricao, described as the poorest town on the island. There is still no electricity in the small mountain town.

“Most of this community’s 5,000 people live up in the mountains. Many are farmers and coffee growers, but lost everything with the hurricane,” said Angel Suarez -Valera, moderator of the Iglesia Presbiteriana congregation. “We also have some people who have migrated from the Dominican Republic. God presents challenges to our church. It is hard for the presbytery to send pastors to work here because it is so difficult to reach.”

The PDA delegation traveled narrow, mountainous roads in the remote mountains, hampered by mudslides, downed trees and power lines. (Photo by Rick Jones)

The delegation met church members and discussed the problems facing the building and its members. The group also met the church’s most popular member, who is nearly as old as the church itself. Anna Maria “Bachita” Segarra, is 100 years old and grew up in the church. She lost everything during Maria, but was excited to meet the delegation and closed out the meeting by ringing the church bell.

More than 30 representatives from the Synod of Boriquen (Puerto Rico) and the presbyteries of the Northwest, Southwest and San Juan gathered with the PDA delegation in Mayagüez to discuss the damage from Maria and the long-term impact on communities.

“There are 30 churches in this presbytery and out of those, 15-18 churches were damaged. Five or six were really bad. The flooded rivers caused problems, sending water to the ceilings in some churches,” said Dagmary Fornes, vice moderator with the Presbytery of the Northwest. “More than 5,000 people and refugees have been impacted. We are helping to buy supplies for cooking as well as distributing food. More than 200 generators are being donated to the island and that will help.”

Fornes says Maria has also increased unemployment in the area, forcing some people to head to Florida and other states to find work.

 “A lot of people still don’t have water. Many have captured the rain from the roofs to replenish their water supply,” said Eber Candelario with Iglesia Presbiteriana Corcovada in Añasco. “With the standing water we do have, there is also a build-up of mosquitos as well.”

Growth in the mosquito and rat populations, coupled with a lack of water purification, have raised concerns about significant health issues and diseases. The rodent population has increased urine and feces contamination in drinking water, resulting in several cases of leptospirosis, a bacterial infection.

The Rev. Candido Lugardo is pastor of a Presbyterian church in Utuado, one of the hardest hit towns in Puerto Rico. His church suffered water damage, raising concern about another potential health hazard.

“We are very concerned about the possibility of asbestos in our floor. An engineer told me there could be a problem but we need a specialist to determine this,” he said. “The insurance company has limits and our community is poor and I’m very concerned about how we can handle this problem because we would have to contract a specialist to remove this.”

More than 30 people from the Presbyteries of the Northwest, Southwest and Synod of Puerto Rico attended a meeting with the PDA delegation in Mayagüez. (Photo by Rick Jones)

The delegation has been working throughout the week to ensure open lines of communication between the presbyteries, synod, PDA and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency.) Churches are hopeful as more roads are cleared and power is restored. Predictions for power restoration run anywhere from three months to several years depending on the location.

“Moving from San Juan to the west coast and then up into the mountains, we continue to uncover the depth of the catastrophe that has affected Puerto Rico,” said the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, PDA director. “In the Bible, the word apocalypse means to uncover. It’s interesting that in popular culture, we tend to use the word to describe catastrophic occurrences and situations. But if we look at the word biblically, we also see difficult conditions of what is uncovered, things usually hidden or deep.”

Kraus says she’s witnessed the depth of spiritual strength and imagination in how people are meeting the emergency and emerging needs of their neighbors, with limited access to resources.

“They’re feeding those who are hungry in a very ‘loaves and fishes’ kind of way,” she said. “They’re tending to the migrants and the forgotten and they’re doing that with a worshipful heart.”

“As we drove through the mountains, the knot of trees and electrical lines, is a reminder of the devastation and destruction. And yet when you look closely, you see the beginnings of life,” said Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace and Justice. “The image of rebirth, you see it in the landscape, even more evident in the resilience and imagination in our colleagues in the churches throughout Puerto Rico. Even though many of them still live without electricity or access to water, they are binding together to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

The number of people who have died either directly or indirectly because of Hurricane Maria varies between 400 and 1,000 people. Church leaders who met with PDA were rocked during the meeting upon learning that a pastor who had worked tirelessly since the storm had suffered a massive stroke. The meeting was suspended for a few minutes to allow attendees to pray, cry and share concerns.

“The ripple effect of the hurricane and the destruction and the interruption of people’s daily lives have been manifested in the impact on emotional, physical and spiritual well-being,” said Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for national disaster response. “While we are humbled and impressed by the strength and courage of our colleagues, our assessment is the need is great and we will need to be present as a church for a long time to come.”


To support recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, click here. You’ll be taken to the PC(USA) website to donate securely and quickly.

If you prefer to mail a check (please write “DR000194-Puerto Rico” on the memo line), you may send it to:
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
P.O. Box 643700
Pittsburgh, PA 15264-3700

You may also call 800-872-3283 Monday Through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (EDT), and donate by phone.

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