Hurricane Maria exposes poverty in Puerto Rico

Bob Roller | Catholic News Service

Hurricanes Irma and Maria did more than catastrophic physical damage when they struck Puerto Rico back-to-back in September, crippling the U.S. territory's power grid and infrastructure.

"The hurricanes basically blew off the top of all the poverty on the island," said Father Flavio Bravo, SJ, the superior of the island's Jesuit community and president of the Jesuit high school, Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola, in San Juan. Puerto Rico is in the Jesuit's Central and Southern Province, which is based in St. Louis.

"People have assumed Puerto Rico, because it's a U.S. territory, is a wealthy island, pretty much self-sufficient," Father Flavio said. "The fact is that it's not. You can see the poverty now after the destruction, especially in the interior of the island."

Students from St. Louis will experience the devastation first-hand and help in recovery efforts. Eight students and two faculty from De Smet Jesuit High School will travel to Puerto Rico for a week-long service project in the last week of November. It'll be the first trip for a U.S.-based Jesuit high school to Puerto Rico since the hurricanes. Six students and two faculty from St. Louis University High School will go there for three-and-a-half weeks in January during the senior service projects.

With bridges out, destroyed by hurricane winds, many areas are inaccessible, severing vital transportation links for basic aid such as water, food and medicine. Almost two months after the hurricanes' apocalyptic one-two punch, most of the island's 3.4-million residents, especially those outside of the major cities, are still without power, and clean drinking water is scarce.

San Ignacio has been in session since early October, but on a modified schedule.

"We have four days of school and every Friday, we send a whole class to about six or seven communities to visit families and bring food and water filters," Father Flavio said. "We need to take care of each other. We have to be engaged with the poverty around us. People didn't see that poverty for a long time. It was covered, but now there is no roof; it's really there. We need to engage that."

The island economy, based on tourism, has collapsed.

"This is an island that depends so much on tourism, but Old San Juan is without power," Father Flavio said. "Some businesses and restaurants are open but most tourist attractions are shut down. They have no power."

Even if there were tourists, they'd have no place to stay.

"Hotels are being used for relief workers and the military, not for tourism," said Father Flavio, who went to graduate school at St. Louis University as a Jesuit Scholastic. "Imagine what that's doing for the economy. Businesses are shutting down. Families are making decisions to leave, maybe transfer to U.S. or somewhere else. ... There's depression; people feel they're not being productive or won't get out of this."

However, Puerto Ricans have shown great resilience in the face of crushing hardship, with the San Ignacio community and the Jesuits providing a small sense of normalcy.

After Hurricane Irma hit the island Sept. 5, San Ignacio returned to classes after a few days of cleanup, but without power. Maria followed two weeks later with sustained winds of 115 mph and widespread flooding, destroying the island's power grid. Power isn't expected to be restored until at least January for most of the island and late in spring for the rest.

After Maria, Father Flavio said the school community spent about a week assessing damage, clearing debris and cleaning up the campus, then another week waiting for water to come back on.

"As soon as the water returned, my thought was, 'We have water and we can operate school without power ... let's go back to school and see what we can do,'" Father Flavio said. "We're trying to do the basics. I believed we needed to go back and try to bring normal back to the boys."

Albeit a new normal.

"We can't really go back to the old normal; the old normal is not coming back," Father Flavio said. "Normal now involves all of this: having to deal with no electricity, no water, no places to go."

However, there's one place to turn for the largely Catholic territory and for U.S. Catholics seeking to help them with more than material aid.

"Pray for us; that's so important," he said. "We really need prayers." 

>> Men for others

The two Jesuit high schools in St. Louis have planned service trips to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for hurricane relief. San Juan is home of the Jesuits' community in Puerto Rico and Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola, a school for boys in grades seven through 12 with about 700 students. Puerto Rico is in the Jesuits' Central and Southern Province, which is based in St. Louis.

DeSmet Jesuit High School will send eight students and two faculty to Puerto Rico for service in the last week of November; St. Louis University High School will send six students and two faculty for three-and-a-half weeks in January during the senior service projects.

To donate for hurricane relief, visit www.stlouisreview.com/jBb 

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