Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) regional operations coordinator, Larry Stoner, arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, to begin a 10-day assessment following Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the island.
“I landed at noon yesterday,” Stoner says via a phone call that was reported in a Sept. 28 MDS release. “The airport was hot and stuffy and filled with thousands of people trying to get out.”
Once outside the airport, Stoner says he noticed “every single gas station had at least a hundred cars waiting in line. The bigger issue is there is no electricity.”
Despite the challenge finding fuel, there were still many cars on the streets in San Juan, he says.
“Downed trees and tree debris is everywhere in San Juan,” Stoner says, adding that in the city there are damaged buildings but there are also a lot of buildings that survived the hurricane. “It looks very bleak for the immediate future.”
Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico Sept. 20, devastating the U.S. commonwealth. The situation has worsened since then as people are running low on water and food, the electricity and communication networks are spotty at best and there is a 7 p.m. curfew in San Juan.
To contact the MDS office in Lititz, Pennsylvania, Stoner borrowed the phone of a local contact and found a place along the road where there was a cellular signal. Recharging the phone is a challenge because of the lack of electricity. Stoner also has a satellite phone and his own Verizon-based phone; however, neither are connecting.
Stoner was scheduled to travel to Aibonito Thursday, Sept. 28, where the local Mennonite school and hospital have been damaged.
“I heard that the fourth floor of the hospital was destroyed,” he says.
Kevin King, MDS executive director, says Stoner’s visit will help the agency plan for its response.
“The purpose of Larry’s visit is to connect with our MDS Puerto Rico Unit and their churches to begin assessing the damage and where MDS will respond,” King says. “We will be responding, we will be rebuilding, but we just can’t say where and when until we can get there and conduct an assessment.”
Stoner is expected to focus on the town of Aibonito and the surrounding area in the center of the country where the MDS Puerto Rico Unit headquarters are located.
Unit leader, Eileen Rolon, lost the roof on her house, Stoner says.
King heard from a Mennonite pastor in Hatillo that the front of their church and roof are gone.
Pastor Hector Lugo says, “In all my years of living in Puerto Rico I have not seen worse conditions. The water supply is intermittent. No electricity.”
He says he waited in line for eight hours for a gallon of gasoline, telling King he was hoping to get out to visit his congregation members, but couldn’t without gas.
“The roads are opening up, but there is massive destruction everywhere,” Lugo says.
King assured Lugo that churches throughout the Anabaptist community will be holding them and their congregants in prayer.
King planned to travel to Puerto Rico Tuesday, Oct. 3, along with MDS Region 1 board chair Phil Troyer and Elizabeth Soto, a professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who is originally from Puerto Rico and has family there.
MDS is accepting financial donations for the Hurricane Maria response at www.mds.mennonite.net/donate/hurricane-donate-form/. Those wanting to volunteer can register at www.mds.mennonite.net/volunteer-registration/?volid=2600.
Mennonite Disaster Service is a volunteer network of Anabaptist churches dedicated to responding to natural and man-made disasters in Canada and the United States.
Their aim is to assist the most vulnerable community members, individuals and families who would not otherwise have the means to recover. MDS volunteers provide the skills and labor needed to respond, rebuild and restore in the wake of a disaster.