A week after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico begs for help

Carlos Garcia Rawlins | Reuters

WASHINGTON — More than a week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, much of the island remained without communication and in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

News programs tell of long lines of travelers, who have little food or water, and are desperate to get off the island at the San Juan airport to no avail.

But the scene of destruction outside the airport is even more stark: An island whose dense tropical landscape, along with its infrastructure, towns and cities, has been greatly stripped by winds that reached 155 mph.

Catholic Church groups have mobilized to send help. Some organizations, however, have reported problems mobilizing the aid out of airports and into the places and people who need them.

Officials say Hurricane Maria left 16 dead in Puerto Rico, 27 dead in Dominica and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But accurate information has been hard to come by since cellphone service and electricity, along with access to water and fuel, have been knocked out. Many roads into rural areas still are blocked by debris, making it difficult to access those who live there.

Many Puerto Ricans in the mainland U.S. have been making desperate pleas for information on social media.

President Donald Trump visited Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.4 million people, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands Oct. 3. Planes and ships carrying relief items had only recently begun arriving on the island. Scarcity of food, water and fuel is rampant. The deaths of two patients in intensive care at a San Juan hospital were blamed on lack of fuel.

On Sept. 28, the Trump administration said it would temporarily waive shipping restrictions known as the Jones Act to get fuel and supplies to the island.

Many, such as New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, are offering Masses as well collecting donations to help in a long recovery ahead for Puerto Rico.

Cardinal Dolan was to celebrate a Mass in Spanish at St. Patrick's Cathedral Oct. 8, to "express prayerful solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico and Mexico," according to an article in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York.

Seeking FEMA aid

Lawmakers in Washington were urged to approve a bill introduced in Congress to ensure the fair and equal treatment for houses of worship damaged in natural disasters "by enabling them to seek aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency."

The chairmen of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty and their Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs called for support for the measure in identical letters sent to members of the House and Senate. The bill is the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2017, known as HR 2405 and S 1823 in the House and Senate, respectively.

"The legislation is consistent with Supreme Court jurisprudence, which recognizes the right of religious institutions to receive public financial aid in the context of a broad program administered on the basis of religion-neutral criteria," said the letter.

It was signed by Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the religious liberty committee, and Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of Springfield, Mass., chairman of the ecumenical committee. 

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