The Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) response continues in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit the U.S. commonwealth Sept. 20, 2017. Mennonite Health Services (MHS) has also been involved in recovery efforts and both agencies ask for continued prayer and financial support for the island’s residents.
Carolyn Hoderread Heggen, who returned Dec. 8, 2017, from Puerto Rico after completing an assessment trip sponsored by MHS in cooperation with MDS, reports that from the air, blue FEMA tarps, piles of debris and damage to the normally lush landscape are visible effects of Hurricane Maria. Broken stoplights, uprooted trees and ruined household items lining inland roads of San Juan are on-the-ground evidence of the devastating storm.
Many small communities are still without telephone service, internet, running water and electricity, and even residents of larger towns have no indication of when neighborhood power will be restored. Those in poor, rural communities have had no contact from FEMA or other governmental agencies and wonder if the government has forgotten them.
Transportation is severely limited. Landslides have blocked mountainous roads and numerous large pieces of highway have fallen into the valley below. In some places, travel by car is becoming even more treacherous as rains weaken the supporting soil now stripped of vegetation.
Residents must wait in lines to buy gasoline for generators and vehicles. Many walk to conserve fuel, which is also hazardous due to downed wires and poles, damaged sidewalks and debris that forces pedestrians to share the street with cars.
Food is scarce. Because so much agriculture was destroyed, few local fruits or vegetables are available and what remains is outrageously expensive. The dairy industry has been seriously affected; several mothers reported that their small children have been crying for milk and don’t understand why it’s not available. The chicken industry has also been devastated. A Mennonite chicken farmer in Pulguillas lost between 90,000 and 100,000 chickens, still has no electricity and is therefore unable to hatch eggs to replace those that died. In the meantime, the price of eggs and chicken meat has skyrocketed.
Education has stalled. Staff, parents and volunteers have worked diligently to re-open classes at Academia Menonita Betania, a Mennonite school on the island. The campus has no electricity or running water, several roofs are missing or damaged, and 12 students have left to live with relatives and attend classes in the US, yet school director Sr. Veldez remains committed to resuming students’ education.
Many residents are experiencing symptoms of traumatic stress. In addition to the original trauma of living though a long-lasting hurricane, the stressors of its subsequent destruction continue with no end in sight. Some individuals reported their hearts beating so fast and hard that they hurt. Others had visibly shaking hands and lips. Many seemed to be suffering with severe depression. Several reported that their brains weren’t “working right” and displayed cognitive confusion and disorientation. Fear is prevalent, as are feelings of abandonment. Heggen reports that the phrase she heard most often was, “Estoy tan cansada.” (I am so tired.)
Some individuals reported feelings of anger—at the government and the insensitive things President Trump has said about Puerto Ricans or at local authorities for not cleaning streets faster or restoring water and electricity. Some don’t know where to direct their anger, and several confessed anger toward God, while asking profound spiritual questions about God’s love, omnipotence and silence.
Many Puerto Ricans are evacuating. The Puerto Rican government has indicated that more than 500,000 people have fled to the US. One airport employee stated that more than 600 cars have been abandoned at the airport with keys inside and plates removed, the owners having left the country. Thirteen elderly people were carried in wheelchairs onto Heggen’s returning flight, all on their way to live with adult children in the US. One woman said she was depressed to leave but couldn’t survive alone in her leaking house without water or a way to get food.
And yet, there is hope. Amidst the severe damage and ongoing struggle in Puerto Rico, there remain signs of tenacity, compassion and courage of its people. Individuals, particularly those in churches, seem to be aware of the needs of others—especially the infirmed and elderly. Local Mennonite churches are sharing food and watching over the elderly. The Aibonito Mennonite Church has placed a washer and dryer in their social hall and invited the community to use it. Even those who have little seem to be sharing with those who have less; many have amazing resilience.
Still, Puerto Rico has many needs. Heggen reports that MDS’ presence is appropriate and appreciated, as is MHS’s effort to provide support for psychological recovery. The outpouring of support from the North is much appreciated by the local people who are grateful to not be forgotten.
During her assessment visit to the island, Heggen was a guest speaker at a women’s gathering that was attended by 65 individuals from six congregations. She addressed the physical, emotional, cognitive, spiritual and relational ways we are affected by trauma and focused on ways to create an “internal sanctuary” in the midst of chaos.
Heggen also led a workshop for the teachers and staff at Academia Menonita Betania, discussing ways to identify students who may need help, what to expect in traumatized children and healing ways to intervene. She supplied the school with several copies of a Spanish translation of, “A Terrible Thing Happened,” a book by Margaret M. Holmes and led an assembly for all intermediate grade students.
At Hospital Menonita, Heggen met with eight cancer patients who were receiving chemo therapy infusions, a hospitalized father of a Mennonite woman suffering from ovarian cancer and the hospital chaplain. She also visited pastors and congregants in other towns who had lost or damaged homes.
MHS urges constituents to not forget Puerto Rico in prayer and invites any healthcare professionals who are interested in volunteering to contact Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship by calling Deloris Rhodes at 1-888-406-3643 or emailing Deloris@mennohealth.org. Those interested in directly supporting the work of Carolyn Holderread Heggen and other trauma specialists can send tax-deductible contributions to MHS at 1112 North Main St., Goshen, Indiana 46528.
MHS also encourages constituents to donate dollars and/or volunteer hours to MDS. MDS is partnering with Atlantic Coast Conference churches of Mennonite Church USA to fund food parcels to be sent to Puerto Rico. In November, volunteers packed 2,000 parcels to be sent to Puerto Rico through a partnership with Mennonite Central Committee. MDS also facilitated a resource day for Mennonite pastors in Puerto Rico in mid-November.
MDS requests prayers for its operations team as it continues to work on its response and also requests prayers for staff and volunteers in Texas and Florida responding in areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.
MDS is wrapping up initial cleanup work following Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico. As of mid-December 230 MDS volunteers have worked in cleanup in these regions.
Now, MDS is beginning its long-term work bringing hope to communities ravaged by the three Category 4 hurricanes which struck during 44 days from late August to mid-October. The unprecedented storms caused billions of dollars in damage to homes and communities.
MDS has now engaged three persons for the coordination of long-term efforts in the three areas.
- Elizabeth Soto, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has been invited be the administrator of the MDS work in Puerto Rico assisting local Mennonite churches and MDS in planning and implementing the final cleanup tasks and then implementing repair and rebuilding of homes and churches. She will begin in January.
- Tom Smucker, of Sterling, Ohio and a former MDS executive director, has begun overseeing four MDS home building projects in Texas, in the areas of Baytown, La Grange, Victoria County and an area referred to as the Coastal Bend, which includes Rockport and Aransas Pass. Much of MDS’ work will be in lower income communities south of Houston.
- Phil Helmuth, of Harrisonburg, Virginia, began working with MDS shortly after Hurricane Irma in Florida coordinating the clean-up efforts and now will implement the long-term home repair and rebuilding project in the Fort Myers and Naples regions.
“We have three excellent coordinators in place to begin the core of MDS work, the long-term projects that bring hope to communities,” says Kevin King, MDS executive director. “This is where MDS really has the rubber hit the road, where MDS volunteers and disaster survivors come together and faith is expressed in love by a hands-on practical manner.”
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were only three of ten consecutive hurricanes that emerged from the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico during the 2017 hurricane season which ended November 30. To watch videos of MDS responses in Puerto Rico and Texas, visit https://mds.mennonite.net/videos/. To donate, visit https://www.mds.mennonite.net/donate/.
With files from MDS.