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Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico continue long road to recovery one year after hurricanes

Rebuilding process is slow, but resilience is strong

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — It’s been a year since a trio of hurricanes wreaked havoc on Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, leaving a path of destruction, major power outages and many people without homes. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in quick succession, pummeled their targets over several days late last summer.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Red Cross and other disaster recovery organizations, including Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), have made strides in the past 12 months, but much work remains.

Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath as seen in Port Aransas, Texas. (Photo by Rick Jones)

In Texas, work continues to repair homes and businesses damaged by Harvey’s wrath. Last fall, a PDA delegation visited presbyteries and churches impacted by the storm, including the First Presbyterian Church in Dickinson.

Harvey left several feet of water in the church and parked an ice chest and boat at the church door. While the cleanup has been long and difficult, Pastor Kathy Sebring says it’s also been a blessing.

“We’ve had challenges and still do, but it’s actually presented an opportunity of rebirth for us,” said Sebring. “Before Harvey hit, we were a very small congregation and had no new members. Harvey came and washed all of that away.”

For the first two Sundays after Harvey, the congregation worshipped outdoors and, according to Sebring, it drew people in who were looking for help and a church.

Sebring says a church in West Virginia provided money for new chairs and donated a baby grand piano. Another church provided hymnals and Bibles.

“We’ve had six new members since April and one adult baptism. Prior to the hurricane, we hadn’t seen anyone join the church in over five years and there hadn’t been a baptism in 10 years,” she said. “Members were resistant to reaching out, thinking they weren’t big or strong enough. Now it’s not even in their vocabulary. God gives us the wherewithal to do it. This congregation is so on fire. The hurricane was a terrible thing but probably the biggest blessing that God could have given to us.”

Workers unload food and other supplies at Mision Peniel in Immokalee, Florida. (Photo courtesy of Mision Peniel)

Florida continues the recovery, not only from Irma but from previous hurricanes.

“It’s been slow. Around the state, we have several long-term recovery groups that have formed in the wake of Irma,” said Kathy Broyard with Florida Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Network (FLAPDAN.) “Volunteers are coming, but not as many as we would like. The number of workers in Florida is down as many headed to Texas and Puerto Rico after Harvey and Maria. We’re not complaining. Things are moving.”

Broyard says there are many homes still covered in blue tarps and recovery groups are working to keep things dry until volunteers can arrive to help make repairs.

“There are a few churches that are planning mission trips here,” she said. “In Monroe County, in the Keys, they are moving ahead quickly to provide volunteer housing. We’re trying to get the word out that we still need help here. Folks who have been impacted are fearful of the next storm that comes through.”

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

In Puerto Rico, most power has been restored across the island, but there are still areas where power doesn’t last long. From the sky, blue tarps can be seen dotted across the communities, still waiting for repairs. The government this week released new information on the death toll from Maria, saying nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the storm.

“From what we’ve seen and heard, a lot of people are tired. They feel that they haven’t had a lot of time to rest or to take care of themselves,” said the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, PDA consultant working on Puerto Rico’s recovery. “I still hear about people needing beds, refrigerators and basic necessities. Power is going out almost weekly in different areas which impacts stoves, microwaves or refrigerators.”

González-Castillo says it puts a lot of pressure on the churches. Many pastors, who are part time and holding down other jobs, find themselves working around the clock to meet the needs of their members.

Families are still living in rough conditions and are concerned about when the next storm will hit.

“I’ve talked with one family that got new beds, but their roof still leaks. When it rains, their beds get damaged, and they must be replaced again,” said González-Castillo. “There’s that moment where you can’t handle it anymore and it’s created a desperate situation for families, the economy, government, and schools.”

To make matters worse, González-Castillo says trailers loaded with spoiled food and supplies have been found that were never delivered. Hundreds of bodies have never been claimed either because families have left the island or can’t afford to bury them.

Despite the slow recovery, González-Castillo says Presbyterian churches are stronger and more organized to meet the needs of their congregations. Volunteer groups continue to come in and assist with home repairs. Next month, PDA will send another delegation to the region to visit with churches and discuss future support efforts.

“PDA has been working in partnership with our Presbyterian sisters and brothers in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico in the initial response and now in the long-term recovery,” says Jim Kirk, associate for disaster response in the U.S. “As a result of the generosity of our denomination, PDA will be able to support the ongoing recovery. It is hoped that through additional gifts that support can last even longer.”

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Click here to read PDA’s response to the hurricanes over the last year.

To support hurricane recovery efforts, 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” 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. (Eastern time), and donate by phone.


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