With prayer, Catholics in Puerto Rico deal with Hurricane Maria’s wrath

Joe Raedle | Getty Images
Related Articles: 

WASHINGTON — Authorities say it may take months for electricity to fully return to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island and its infrastructure as it made landfall Sept. 20.

When the hurricane hit the island with winds of up to 155 miles per hour, it tore out cables, roofs from homes and buildings, uprooted palm trees and even bent a cross anchored to a cement post at the entrance of a Jesuit school.

It has been difficult to communicate with the those on the island, said Capuchin Franciscan Father Urbano Vasquez, of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, who studied in Puerto Rico and has vast ties to the island. He has been trying to communicate, to no avail, with a community of Poor Clares in Cidra, Puerto Rico, and others he knows on the island, but phone service is hit or miss.

Father Vasquez, however, was able to make contact with a group of seven Capuchin Franciscan friars after the hurricane passed. They took refuge from the storm in Trujillo Alto, about 10 minutes from Old San Juan.

"They were scared because it was the first time they've been through something like that," said Father Vasquez. "They spent the time praying or near the Eucharist" as winds tore through part of the roof near a chapel in the building at Centro Capuchino. Some later sent him videos of the winds whistling through the streets, images taken from a cracked window in an arched entrance door.

The friars told him of the devastation they could see from inside, he said, including fallen palm trees and blocked roads. A parishioner sent him photos of debris, such as torn and battered traffic lights left behind by Maria's wrath.

Capuchin Franciscan Father Carlos Reyes, in a Sept. 21 phone interview with Catholic News Service, said he didn't sleep through the harrowing night he spent listening to Hurricane Maria barrel through San Juan.

"I spent the night praying," he said, and listening to the radio was the only way to hear what was happening in Puerto Rico and the world. The only way to live through such an experience is with faith and thinking about safety, he said. Authorities tried to drive the urgent message that Hurricane Maria was no joke and many listened, he said.

"The message was to save life, not the material," he said. "You can reconstruct structures, but not life."

As of Sept. 22, at least 15 people were killed in Puerto Rico, and 14 deaths were reported on the island nation of Dominica. Two others were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one on the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged Catholics to respond with prayer and other help "in this time of great need for our brothers and sisters in harm's way — many of whom have been hit repeatedly by the successive hurricanes."

In a Sept. 22 statement, he noted the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Maria were visited on Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean "just as we begin to assess the material and emotional damage of hurricanes Harvey and Irma."

Cardinal DiNardo said: "Casting aside any temptation to despair, and full of hope in the loving providence of God, we pray that our Father may receive unto his loving presence those who have lost their lives, may he comfort the grieving, and may he fortify the courage and resilience of those whose lives have been uprooted by these disasters. May he extend the might of his right hand and bid the sea be 'quiet' and 'still' (Mark 4:39)."

Most of Puerto Rico remained without communication and little information had been gathered about conditions. "Our telecommunications system is partially down," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello told the news agency CNN Sept. 20. "Our energy infrastructure is completely down."

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters Sept. 26 that that badly damaged airports and seaports are making it difficult to get aid and personnel to Puerto Rico.

Long said 16 Navy and Coast Guard ships were currently in the waters around the island and that thousands more U.S. military personnel and 10 more ships have been dispatched to offer help, including a Navy hospital ship, the USS Comfort.

Puerto Rico, which already was experiencing economic problems because of huge debt due to mismanagement, had an infrastructure with massive problems before the hurricanes arrived. The economy already was weak, people were leaving the island behind and with it, family, because of the financial problems. And now those who had little, have nothing, Father Flavio Bravo, superior of the Jesuits' Puerto Rico community, said.

"It's an avalanche of disasters, one disaster after another disaster," he said.

One of Father Bravo's tasks is to repair the damage done to the Jesuit school, which educates more than 600 in San Juan, and which already had suffered damage from Hurricane Irma. Electricity will not return for a long time, he said, maybe four to six months. There is a lot of broken glass, damages to buildings, and debris to clear.

And yet, he said, the feeling he hangs onto is of gratitude to God, gratitude to those who are thinking about those who are suffering on the island and other places, gratitude for those who have been moved with compassion, gratitude for those who have helped and want to help, and gratitude for those "who have not allowed us to feel the emptiness," he said.

Father Reyes said the damage to Puerto Rico isn't just material but also psychological for those who lived through the experience of Hurricane Maria and he worries for the most vulnerable in the population.

"This leaves behind a lot of damage," he said. "But we hope for goodwill ... the worries and necessities are great ... but we can learn a lot from these experiences, that we have to find the good among the bad. In the middle of all of this, faith strengthens us." 

No votes yet