By Lauren Miers
Driving through Puerto Rico, downed power lines, debris and broken trees still line the roadways eight months after Hurricane Maria impacted the island. Some houses appear unscathed; Others have blue tarps stamped with the names of the organizations who placed them stretched over an opening that once was a roof.
After winding through rural Puerto Rico's lush wilderness on blacktop roads, a van filled with Missouri Conference and Methodist Church of Puerto Rico leadership starts climbing up a steep hill. Plywood, siding and broken limbs lies scattered down the hillside. A house, destroyed by Hurricane Maria, occupied this hilltop for 14 years. Only a small, pale teal structure neighboring a tin roof covered outdoor kitchen remains.
The two women that call the hilltop home recalled how the house they'd built and inhabited for over a decade was gone in one day. They said when no one else remembered them at their lowest, the church did.
Since the hurricane, service teams have laid the foundation and set pillars to start the rebuilding process. The work is far from complete, but the new framework offers hope.
That hilltop isn't the only hopeful place on the island of Puerto Rico. The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico is working hard to bring restoration and new life to the island after Hurricane Maria.
“We were surprised by the amount of damage,” Glorymar Rivera-Baez, UMCOR project director in Puerto Rico. “We couldn't imagine what loss a Category 5 hurricane would bring.”
Everyone in Puerto Rico knows the date: September 20, 2017. The day lives were changed and lost. The day the lights went out and communication systems failed. The day the long road to relief and recovery began.
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Dominica and the Virgin Islands. The Category 5 hurricane affected 250,000 houses on the island, destroying 100,000 of them. Maria decimated electric systems, which the water system depends upon, and cut off power to the nearby Puerto Rican island Vieques. The official death toll was 68, though the actual estimate of deaths related to the storm is thought to be over 1,000.
In February, NBC News reported a third of Puerto Rico's residents, more than 900,000 people, were still living without power. In March, sporadic electricity access was still a reality, even in areas where the lights were back on. Currently, the island of Vieques runs off a generator, and estimates say the lights won't be back on for over a year.
Eight months after the storm, the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico continues to rally for its island's people. The Church walks alongside residents to meet needs. They petition UMCOR for more funds and spend hours preparing to receive volunteer teams.
“The hurricane uncovered a lot of poverty in Puerto Rico,” Rivera-Baez says.
Two teams of Missouri Conference leadership got to witness this incredible and tireless work as well as learn how the Conference can aid in recovery efforts. In February, a small team of Conference leaders visited the island to see potential projects Missouri could work on. In March, Missouri Bishop Bob Farr, along with an advance mission team, went to Puerto Rico to see the chosen project and meet with MCPR Bishop Ortiz and his Conference staff.
“We want to express our gratitude to our friends, Bishop Farr and the Methodist Church in Missouri for the support, the prayers, the presence here,” Bishop Ortiz says. “It is very important for us to understand that we have friends in many places in the world. And that friends have the commitment to support our church and our people here on our island.”
Missouri will help with recovery, but the Methodist Church wasn't absent in the immediate relief efforts.
UMCOR responded after Maria hit. In sum, $5 million in relief supplies and recovery grants was awarded to the MCPR. Rivera-Baez stresses that this aid was only possible thanks to the millions of United Methodists around the world that donated to UMCOR.
“When partnership is established, it not only fixes the physical structure,” Rivera-Baez says. “It benefits the ministries of the church and its impact on the community.”
This UMCOR assistance has manifested in very tangible ways on the island. Rivera-Baez says the MCPR provides case managers to help residents get the most out of aid available from FEMA, VALOR, UMCOR and other services. The MCPR coordinated Brigades of Love and Hope, a grocery delivery ministry that delivered around 13,000 bags of food that can feed a small family for a few days.
Additionally, the MCPR distributed $17,000 in $100 food vouchers. Local church pastors helped the Conference identify families in their communities that could benefit from the resources. Rivera-Baez says pastors were crucial in helping advocate for those in need.
To support local pastors affected personally by Maria, the MCPR has offered both monetary and psychological resources, allowing pastors to have anonymous clinical counseling in the storm's aftermath.
Rivera-Baez says the MCPR was running medical clinics in local churches prior to Hurricane Maria, but the need post-storm has been great. Seven clinics are running in local churches and receiving physicians from mainland United States.
The island of Vieques hosts one of theses clinics.
“In Vieques, we have a lot of people who are sick,” Alex Gerena says. “We don't have a hospital, so all the help is very needed.”
Vieques lies six miles off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. The only access to the island is by ferry ride, which takes an hour and a half each way, or by a 30-minute plane trip. Residents aboard the ferry pull small wagons filled with groceries and larger items, like microwaves. Many travel to the main island for shopping.
Gerena is a passionate advocate for Esparanza - both the community on the south side of Vieques that takes its name from the Spanish word and the translated concept, hope. Gerena pastors the Methodist church in Esparanza. The church lost its roof to Hurricane Maria.
After disembarking the ferry and hopping back into the van, the Missouri team travels the winding roads into Esparanza. As they pull up to the church, which sits on a neighborhood street across from a baseball diamond, little league baseball teams pitch, hit and run the bases on a field lined with stadium lighting poles that are snapped like sticks.
A medical clinic is wrapping up as they enter the church. Inside the sanctuary, doctors and nurses linger as the day's final patients wait to be seen or filled out intake forms. Scotch-taped signage advertises services like pediatrico (pediatrics) and cardiologo (cardiology). Gerena says the clinic had 16 specialist doctors and saw nearly 1,000 people in the clinic that day; That's one ninth of the island's population.
Hurricane Maria destroyed the only hospital serving Vieques's population of 9,000. Before, the state-run hospital provided the island's medical care, a Methodist clinic offered services. The government has no plans to rebuild this hospital. Now, the Methodist church is returning to its roots in Vieques and providing the main medical services.
Exiting the sanctuary and climbing the steps to the church's second floor, the beauty of the island and neighborhood comes into view. A few steps further reveals the second floor activity room. The roof is gone. Scrap metal, formerly the roof, piles under the remaining overhang. Heaps of dirt and debris sit mounded on the red stone floors. Hanging metal clangs as the wind blows. The second floor of the church remains a disaster zone. Through the blown-out windows, little league baseball players are still running the bases, the cheers of their fans echoing through the air.
Gerena says this space was used for Bible classes, youth group and community outreach. Stoves and kitchen utensils sit sidelined; they used to be essentials for the free baking classes offered to the community. Since Maria, these activities haven't taken place.
Additionally, without a roof, the sanctuary below is structurally at risk. Every time it rains, water leaks down into the sanctuary, causing further damage. Gerena says they have to work quickly to repair the roof to avoid extensive repairs in the sanctuary.
A speedy repair could be a challenge, though. It's difficult to get building supplies to the island, and insurance processes must be completed before the work can begin.
“Vieques is a place that is part of Puerto Rico but really the thing is we're an island apart,” Gerena says. “That is a thing a lot of people don't understand; that we have a lot of limitations in that regard.”
The Missouri Conference has committed to helping Gerena rebuild in Esparanza. Three buildings - the guesthouse, parsonage and church need repair. The guesthouse will host teams, and the parsonage will be outfitted as a new medical clinic. Teams will help with work on these neighboring sites.
“It needs presence,” Bishop Farr says. “It needs our help. It needs partners to help them come alongside the people in this community to make a difference.”
One team has already served in Esparanza under the guidance of Gerena. Sarah Dumas, an intern in the Office of Next Generation Ministries, lead a small team of college students during Holy Week. The group worked on the guesthouse and stayed in the guesthouse. One night, a heavy storm hit and flooded parts of the guesthouse where another service team was staying.
“It was really eye opening to see that they currently don’t have the resources to handle a daily storm like that, much less another hurricane,” Dumas says. “That was pretty heartbreaking and motivating that we knew what we were doing was really making a difference.”
The Missouri Conference is offering three ways Methodists around the state can get involved: Pray, Give and Go.