Hurricane Maria Relief: Puerto Rico Report – Don’t Forget Us

by David Nakhla, OPC Disaster Response Coordinator (October 13, 2017)

Rev. Dick Ellis, representing the Presbytery of New Jersey, to which the OP churches in Puerto Rico belong, joined me on a trip to Puerto Rico, from Saturday, October 7 through Thursday, October 12, 2017.

We sought to bring encouragement to the leaders and members of the OP churches in Puerto Rico. We assessed the damage from Hurricane Maria, and began to plan how OPC Disaster Response might bring relief to our churches there.

Initial reflections upon return from Puerto Rico:

Since most homes in Puerto Rico are concrete structures and remained intact, it is not a lack of shelter but the breakdown of the infrastructure throughout the island that is impacting the lives of almost every household.

  • Puerto Rico is part of the USA. Puerto Ricans are accustomed to all the same amenities of life as we are. 
  • Can you imagine what your day would be like without cell phone service, internet, email, electricity, or water?
  • At least they are past the hump of the additional burden of fuel shortages. No more waiting 6 hours to be allowed to purchase $10 worth of gas!
  • Their way of living has been set back a century. Life has become focused on the most basic day to day necessities of life.
  • Trying to figure out where to get water to bathe or to flush the toilets, some who are without water are contriving ways to gather rain water or pull from streams.
  • Suddenly, washboards are in high demand, because they are washing their clothes by hand! We all know how time-consuming that can be!
  • No refrigeration. 
  • On the side of the highway, you will suddenly see cars stopped.  You wonder what’s going on ... and then your phone starts to beep as emails come in. You're at one of the few spots there is good cell coverage.
  • Driving at night without any street lights or traffic signals is dangerous, not to mention the security concerns of pitch black neighborhoods and apartment buildings.
  • These people can get by doing things by hand and using a flashlight, but they are also losing income because their employers don’t have power, phones, or internet either. It really is a tough spot.

We did not see more than a handful of power company trucks.

  • The island's infrastructure has been wrecked. They have good roads, but that's about it.
  • There are thousands and thousands of downed poles that have not been re-set yet.
  • We hardly saw any linemen hanging off of poles. We saw maybe 10 power company trucks.
  • The power stations were under-maintained to begin with.
  • So they need a whole new grid.
  • It could be years before the instrastructure is up and running again.

Tourism is going to be in the dumps.

  • Loss of tourism will have a huge economic impact.
  • Who’s going to come to beautiful Puerto Rico, if there is no power in their hotel room, let alone throughout the island?
  • We walked through beautiful old San Juan. It is gorgeous. But it’s a ghost town.
  • A few bars were open … eagerly urging passersby to come in.

Our church leaders in Puerto Rico are very concerned.

  • The escape valve for young Puerto Rican families is to head to the States. It’s a domestic flight – no visa required.
  • They are all US citizens, free to go at any time. Why tough it out here when the future looks so bleak?
  • This is REALLY hard on the churches – could make a huge impact on them.
  • It is clear that Hurricane Maria may decide the future of our OP churches in Puerto Rico, unless they are able to seize the new ministry and outreach opportunities that have suddenly become theirs because of Maria.

How might we help?

  • They are open to having teams come who they will probably use in ways that are meant to encourage their neighbors more than anything else.
  • Possibly cutting down and clearing out trees.
  • It could be helping people with daily chores that are now a fact of daily life.
  • It could be a cookout for the neighborhood, or a musical event.
  • Lots of ways to show love, even as we have been shown love.

This is going to be a long, difficult recovery.

  • We encouraged everyone we met to make adjustments for this being "the new normal" for the foreseeable future.
  • Lots to think and pray about. Stay tuned!

Pray for OP churches in Puerto Rico: 

  • Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada del Caribe, in San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Jesus es la Verdad, in San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Iglesia Uno Reformada, in Arroyo, Puerto Rico (church plant)

Pray for OPC Disaster Relief:

  • Please pray for the Disaster Response Subcommittee and the Presbytery of New Jersey as they work together to bring help to our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico. God is our refuge and strength!

Updates that were posted to Facebook during this trip:

October 9: First Impressions:

Only been on the ground here in San Juan for less than 12 hours, so very initial impressions.

  • All green plants have been shredded of vegetation and most large trees knocked down.
  • Electric wires lying all over the place.
  • No working traffic signals. None!
  • Signs on freeways bent backward.
  • Only 10% of power restored.
  • Lots of concern about lost wages or employment.

Yet ... little loss of life, considering what these 3.4 million people lived through.

And, the believers are attesting to the Lord's providence over all things, even in this very difficult time.

Thank the Lord!

October 11: Don't Forget Us:

"Don't forget us!" ... was one of the responses when we asked the pastors in Puerto Rico what message they would like the rest of the OPC to hear.

  • Maybe 10% of the island has power ... some having lost it almost a month ago when Irma passed by.
  • Cell and data service is spotty at best.
  • Many are still without water.
  • We have seen very few power repair crews, despite thousands of power poles down. There is no doubt it's going to be months before power is resumed.
  • They are doing laundry by hand!

Volunteers are welcome! Write to MariaVolunteers@opc.org.

October 11: Re Days #1 and #2:

  • We brought 5 generators with us to Puerto Rico.
  • We visited the two OPC churches in San Juan and met with the church officers on Sunday afternoon. This was the first time together since Maria for many of them.
  • The economic impact to the families and congregations is expected to be significant.

Please pray about how to participate in bringing relief.

October 12: Re Day #3:

On Monday, we visited a single mother of six, Ada. She is a member of the church. One part of the roof of her small rental home in one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Juan caved in under the force of Maria's 175 mph winds.

She hopes to move to a better place soon. We bought her groceries for now. The church will be watching after her. It was good to gain a small peak into how her already difficult life is strained further by Maria's impact.

October 12: Re Day #4:

On Tuesday, we got a glimpse of Maria's impact outside San Juan. We headed south, over the mountains to Arroyo to visit OPC church planter, Bradney Lopez, and his beautiful family.

With no power, cell, internet, and unpredictable water...life has completely changed for this young family of seven and all in their community. It's like civilization stepped backwards 100 years! They are hand-washing their clothes! Life is suddenly consumed with all of today's chores.

And we have seen very few power company repairmen ... maybe ten at most! Yet thousands of downed poles. We encourged this family to prepare for a long recovery. Such difficult times ...

Together, we drove west along the southern coast to Ponce and then up into the mountains to see Deacon Jaime Medina and his wife and grandson. We were the first faces from the church they saw since before the storm, three weeks before. What an experience to see them alive and well and to hear them testify to the Lord's grace in a horrific experience.

They said the howling winds began at 2:00 am ... and hadn't let up when they, exhausted, gave up and went to bed at 5:00 pm.

God is our refuge and strength!

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