Delegation continues assessment of damage from Hurricane Maria
by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — After a day of worship at Presbyterian churches in and around San Juan, members of a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance delegation began meeting with church leaders and assessing the damage from Hurricane Maria this week.
The hurricane, packing winds in excess of 155 miles per hour, hit the coast of Puerto Rico on September 18 as a Category 4 storm, killing an unknown number of people, as well as heavily damaging the island’s electrical and water infrastructure. More than 55 days later, thousands are still without power and drinkable water.
PDA officials, including the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, director; Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion Peace and Justice and other staff and volunteers began touring some of the damage around the capital city, including Seminario Evangélico de Puerto Rico, which reopened on October 28 with a condensed and revised academic calendar.
While classes are being held at the nearby InterAmerican University, seminary leaders are working to get the campus back in order. A generator in the administration courtyard allows staff to use computers and operate a few fans. Most of the classrooms have been cleaned, but are not yet ready for use.
The delegation toured the seminary chapel which had suffered broken glass and heavy water damage. In one pew, a shard of glass could be seen embedded by the strong winds of the storm.
The campus was also the site of a meeting between the delegation and members of the Presbytery of San Juan, including a few pastors.
“We live in two different Puerto Ricos. If you go to San Juan and tourist areas close to the ocean, you see supermarkets filled with food, open gas stations and a lot of things getting back to normal with electric,” said the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, stated clerk for the Presbytery of San Juan and the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Vega Alta. “If you go to the center of the island, it is a different Puerto Rico. People are without electricity and water. In some cases, there is one gas station working in the whole municipality. They’ve not seen anyone from government and it is difficult to be accessed by car. We still have problems on the roads because of rain. Bridges have collapsed or are in bad shape.”
González-Castillo says there are viruses and bacteria in the water impacting people in communities who use it to drink or wash their clothes.
The day begins with no electricity for the Rev. Wilma Quiñones-Cubero, pastor of the Country Club Presbyterian Church in Carolina, Puerto Rico. With two children under the age of three, the family battles heat and humidity every day. Like many churches, her congregation is dealing with lack of power and drinkable water as well as accessibility issues.
“It’s not secure to be outside at night. There is no light on the road and unfortunately there is a lot of violence around and many people have died or suffered in some ways,” she said. “The storm has also damaged the economy and most people don’t have jobs anymore, causing another struggle. We received people in the community looking for food or just wanting to talk.”
Quiñones-Cubero adds that teachers have come seeking help since schools were closed for a lengthy time.
The church leaders are beginning to see that recovery will not take months but years and some within the presbytery feel that geography has hurt the island’s ability to get the help they need.
“The response from PDA was immediate, but people still feel they’ve been left out by other agencies,” said Luis Jose Ocasio, moderator of the Presbytery of San Juan. “The support will bring a lot of joy to our mission and will give them hope.”
“Bureaucracy is taking over everything and this is very frustrating,” said the Rev. Raúl Santiago-Rivera, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Rosa González and treasurer for the Presbytery of San Juan. “But knowing how to take care of our pastors and lay people will help us. It’s important that we take care of our own as well.”
PDA officials provided updates on a meeting earlier in the day with representatives from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the financial resources available through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).
“With support from PDA, a presbytery can also hire someone to coordinate disaster response and work with federal agencies in most cases. Presbyteries might consider this for short-term, part or full-time,” said Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for national disaster response. “You are reaching out to your congregation and doing what you should be doing. But you can only sprint for so long before you burn out. We will work as long and hard as we can to help.”
The delegation is continuing its visit across the island with scheduled meetings with the Presbyteries of the Northwest and Southwest, the Synod in Puerto Rico, as well as visits to heavily damaged areas.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is the emergency response and refugee program of the denomination, committed to the long-term journey of recovery of communities adversely affected by a crisis or catastrophic event. It is funded by the One Great Hour of Sharing and raises designated funds for responding to specific disasters.
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