Catholic organizations, groups actively working on Puerto Rico’s recovery

Bob Roller | Catholic News Service

QUEBRADILLAS, Puerto Rico — A month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Catholic organizations, groups and individuals were still among the most prominent responders to the needs of a suffering people.

Despite early logistical obstacles, as of Oct. 20, the local Caritas chapter had disbursed over $1.1 million in aid to an estimated 50,000 people — including food, clothing, first aid supplies, potable water and sundries. At its San Juan office, hot lunches also were being distributed daily to members of the community.

"We had to blindly design a response plan," Father Enrique "Kike" Camacho, executive director of Caritas Puerto Rico, told Catholic News Service Oct. 19. "But after communications opened somewhat, we began improving the plan based on diocesan reports. Today, we have a well-coordinated relief system at Puerto Rico's 500 parishes in all six dioceses."

Caritas has been closely working with Catholic Charities USA on Puerto Rico's recovery since Hurricane Irma brushed the island's northern coast two weeks before Maria followed Sept. 20.

Kim Burgo, senior director of disaster operations for Catholic Charities, said: "One of our biggest challenges is money because there were two other hurricanes before ... but then Maria comes along, which in many ways was worse than Harvey and Irma, and people have donor fatigue and it is very difficult to get donations for Puerto Rico. The need here is so much greater, yet the financial resources are so much less."

Puerto Rico's post-hurricane recovery efforts have been largely a grass-roots impulse, mainly spearheaded by newly formed young adult movements and religious groups that have become an alternative to slow, complex and bureaucratic government procedures. Most of these groups, local and coming from the U.S., include Catholics.

At the parish level, cooperation has been notable at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Las Marias, a small town nestled in Puerto Rico's western mountains.

Father Carlos Francis Mendez, pastor of Immaculate Heart, has teamed with the local Pentecostal church, Plenitud lay youth group and Samaritan's Purse to pool and distribute material resources in a coordinated way to the poorest sectors of Las Marias.

Initially, the church's parish hall became a busy warehouse and operations center full of volunteers providing relief to victims of Hurricane Irma in Haiti. Hurricane Maria refocused their mission toward the local community.

"What we have done is create Proyecto de Vida (Life Project) by joining different religious and civil organizations to gather all we have, and that way magnifying what we can give to the poor," Father Carlos said.

Local and federal agencies had been notably slow distributing aid to Las Marias. Some aid was brought in during the first weeks after Hurricane Maria, but it had been sitting undelivered to the needy.

Deep off-road in Plato Indio sector Oct. 24, Father Carlos was busy leading a party of volunteers to distribute food, water filters and plastic tarps, which are mainly being used to cover torn roofs. At each stop, the group also prayed for the families they were helping.

Katherine Riolo, a Catholic volunteer with the Canadian relief foundation Impact Nations, came to Quebradillas, a town of 25,000 residents in northwest Puerto Rico, with a team of four to help distribute 300 portable water filters around isolated homes deep in the mountains. Riolo is a retired schoolteacher and a 30-year missionary veteran who is a member of the Sangre de Cristo Parish in Albuquerque, N.M. This was her first disaster-related mission.

"All the devastation ... when you see this, no electricity, families living with no water to bathe in, it's hard and they are traumatized," Riolo said while distributing the water filters around Quebradilla's Guajataca sector Oct. 21. "When you come into someone's house, they don't forget that, and when you tell them, 'God thinks about you so much that He sent us ... and there's a whole lot of people in my town thinking about you,' they don't forget that.."

Recovery after Hurricane Maria, one of the most destructive in Puerto Rico's history, has been slow. Official reliable statistics about hurricane damage, including an accurate death toll, have been scarce and widely debated by experts.

The latest government timetable for recovery announced Oct. 19 says 90 percent of the island will have its electric power normalized by Dec. 15. That recovery plan is said to yield a totally new and diversified power grid that would bring back hydroelectric systems and add solar power components. 

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