Being the church after a catastrophe: Response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico




Lawrence Crepo, pastor of Arecibo (P.R.) Church of the Brethren (La Casa del Amigo), looks over the destruction in the home of his daughter, Lorena.
Photo by Roy Winter

Lawrence Crepo, pastor of Arecibo (P.R.) Church of the Brethren (La Casa del Amigo), looks over the destruction in the home of his daughter, Lorena.

by Roy Winter, Brethren Disaster Ministries

After the devastating damage of hurricanes like Maria, civil society often breaks down.  Desperate or opportunistic people start looting or stealing and stresses keep increasing. Another part of society pulls together and helps each other, bringing out the very best in human nature...and our faith often brings out the very best of being the church. The Puerto Rican churches are an inspiring example of being the church in a crisis. While burdened with many hardships, the Puerto Rican Brethren are coming together supporting each other and reaching out to their communities. 

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Already struggling with damage from Hurricane Irma, Puerto Rico was struck with the eye of category 4 Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, causing widespread damage, flooding, and storm surge. The storm did catastrophic damage to the island’s power grid, communication towers, agriculture crops, and poultry industry, while badly damaging sewage treatment plants, water supply, and roads.

One month later, only 18 percent of the homes have power, cellular phones are functioning on 25 percent of the island, and about half the island has running water, though it must be boiled or treated before use. With expected long-term delays in repairing the power grid, difficulty with communication, and limited water, the recovery in Puerto Rico will be slow and difficult. 

In light of this destruction, communicating with the Puerto Rico District of the Church of the Brethren has been extremely difficult. With the help of an informal network of Brethren, and recent travel to Puerto Rico, we now know there was limited damage to church structure. In mid-October, I joined Puerto Rico District executive José Otero on a journey to visit six of the seven churches, pastors, the district board chair, and some families who suffered major damage. During our time together, we completed this initial assessment of the impact on the church and started formulating plans for recovery.

How Puerto Rican Brethren have been affected
 
At this time, 20 homes of Church of the Brethren members (some from each congregation) are known to have received major damage or flooding. Other homes in all the church communities have suffered a wide range of damage or were destroyed. Through district leadership, a disaster response program is being built around each congregation, doing needs assessments and organizing to provide disaster assistance in their communities and to impacted members.

At Castañer Church of the Brethren there was flooding of several buildings ruining appliances, flooring, and furnishings, but limited damage to structures. In Río Piedras (Caimito), the Segunda Iglesia Cristo Misionera church building had little damage, but the community center and several houses owned by the church had moderate to major roof damage. The other five churches reported only minor damage from the storm. 

Current joint district and Brethren Disaster Ministries projects include:

-- At the Rió Prieto Church (Rió Prieto Iglesia De Los Hermanos), a drinking water station is being developed for families without access to safe water. This is in the mountains, miles from safe water sources. Several large water tanks are being installed that will be filled by water trucks. Periodic food distributions also are planned. The Castañer Hospital has been using this church to provide clinics for this region.

-- In Caimito (Rió Piedras) at Segunda Iglesia Cristo Misionera and community center, work teams from the US will be working to repair a few homes, the community center, and volunteer housing. Volunteer teams are being organized by a long-term Brethren Disaster Ministries volunteer, with funding from the denomination for supplies and volunteer support.

-- Specific needs of families with home damage, medical needs, lack of food/water, and many other issues are being addressed by each church leadership.

-- A container is being shipped from the Brethren Service Center carrying canned chicken from the Mid-Atlantic and Southern Pennsylvania Districts meat canning project, 14 generators, gas cans, power cords, chain saws, Brethren Disaster Ministries carpentry tool kit and saws, 200 water filters and buckets, 200 large heavy-duty tarpaulins, and solar lanterns.

-- Funding for a part-time staff person to help facilitate the disaster response in Puerto Rico.

During my visit, Otero reported, “The church members are keeping a positive attitude,” and their faith is abundant. When visiting Judex and Nancy to see the major destruction of their home, their calm manner and warm hospitality shined above the damage. It was humbling when they, like many with damaged homes, quickly offered us coffee and a seat, even as they have so little left. When visiting pastors, we heard all about their members, their communities, and how they hope to help with the recovery. Again, it was humbling to see leaders so focused on the needs of others. 

Like most of Puerto Rico, these pastors and families are challenged with no power, no water, and for many no cellular communication without driving for miles. Daily life is very difficult for all, and especially for those with health issues and young children. Many also are impacted with reduced income because of lost jobs, reduced work hours, longer travel times due to damaged roads and destroyed bridges. Simple tasks are made difficult, such as having to do laundry by hand, or needing to communicate with your employer, or needing to find cash to buy food.

How to help

Regarding coordination of Church of the Brethren activities in Puerto Rico, district executive Otero has reported that he has limited cell access and even less e-mail access. He has asked that volunteers, churches, and districts who are planning response programs or want to support Puerto Rico to contact me--Roy Winter--at rwinter@brethren.org or 410-596-8561. I will try to help him coordinate and communicate response activities during weekly planning calls we have arranged.

At this time, it is not possible for the churches in Puerto Rico to host volunteers from the mainland US. The lack of housing, electricity, food, and water means volunteers will add to the hardship rather than help. As mentioned above, a few self-sufficient groups of volunteers are being sent to help do temporary repairs, but those groups are covering all of their costs and staying in hotels.

A workcamp is planned for Jan. 13-20 led by Shirley Baker. Brethren Disaster Ministries expects to establish other work teams, and maybe a sustained volunteer presence when the Puerto Rican church leadership feels this is helpful. Volunteers interested in the January trip or later programs may contact Terry Goodger at tgoodger@brethren.org or 410-635-8730.

To support the disaster relief work in Puerto Rico, give to the Emergency Disaster Fund (EDF) at www.brethren.org/edf .

Brethren Disaster Ministries has requested $100,000 from the Emergency Disaster Fund be approved for a major response in the Caribbean, with a focus on Puerto Rico. Brethren Disaster Ministries is supporting the Puerto Rico District’s response and the work of each congregation by providing funds, disaster response expertise, response planning, skilled labor, and a container of critical supplies. This response will be community based, focused around the ministries of each Puerto Rican church. Brethren Disaster Ministries also will try to help communication and coordinate with other Church of the Brethren efforts to support Puerto Rico.  

-- Roy Winter is associate executive director of the Church of the Brethren’s Global Mission and Service and Brethren Disaster Ministries.

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