Kits are usually shipped on an as-needed basis for several reasons – because storing kits at potential disaster site risks losing them to the disaster, and because CWS has to constantly prioritize where to send its kits as disasters unfold.
What Heriberto Martinez wants to do in Puerto Rico sounds simple but it's the challenge of his lifetime: "I want to get everybody thinking about disaster preparedness – together," he said.
That means communicating with churches across the island and making sure they know what to do when – not if – disaster strikes, explained Martinez, a United Church of Christ pastor who now works as one of Church World Service's (CWS) newest disaster response and recovery liaisons (DRRLs).
DRRLs are a critical human component of CWS's domestic disaster response program. Their mission is to encourage and facilitate cooperative work by people of faith in comprehensive ministry in preparation for and recovery from a disaster. They may work anywhere in the United States and the U.S. territories.
In Puerto Rico, that means introducing churches that may not have worked together before. "That is a challenge," explained Martinez. "Because in Puerto Rico churches tend to work solo."
His partners in the effort are Puerto Rico’s Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s voluntary liaison.
Hurricane Isabel was expected to track north of Puerto Rico this week, but the size of that Category 5 monster storm – preceded by Category 4 Hurricane Fabian – has many people taking a new look at preparedness.
One preparedness effort in Puerto Rico involves selective pre-positioning of CWS "Gift of the Heart" kits and blankets at churches in different parts of the island. "Gift of the Heart" kits are small assistance packages that contain basic materials such as soap, toothpaste, band-aids, paper, pencils and diapers. CWS's health, baby and school kits are shipped to post-disaster sites – both in the U.S. and overseas – to give disaster survivors immediate relief.
In Puerto Rico, arrangement for storage of a modest number of kits in churches across the island is currently underway. Pre-positioning supplies isn't a normal mode of operation for CWS, said Linda Reed-Brown, CWS's associate director for domestic disaster response. "Kits are usually shipped on an as-needed basis for several reasons – because storing kits at potential disaster site risks losing them to the disaster, and because CWS has to constantly prioritize where to send its kits as disasters unfold."
But disaster response and preparedness in Puerto Rico are different, primarily for geographical reasons, explained Martinez, who is based in the small town of Las Piedras. "It's an island. We are apart. We have to be able to deliver supplies right away to disaster survivors."
Martinez would like to ensure Puerto Rico's rural residents have as much access to supplies as those who live in urban areas. He would also like to tie the work of faith-based groups more closely with community-based organizations.
Considered hurricane veterans, residents in Puerto Rico often have disaster preparedness on their minds. Hurricane Georges struck the island in 1998. Many responders called it the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in 70 years.
Georges downed and twisted trees, fouled the island's drinking water, ripped roofs off of homes, scattered debris over a widespread area and ruined crops.
Concrete houses more recently built in Puerto Rico are more likely to withstand hurricane-force winds. But older wooden and tin-roofed houses would be badly damaged or blown away if a hurricane struck.
FEMA established a Puerto Rico National Teleregistration Center after Hurricane Marilyn struck the island in 1995. Through the center, Spanish-speaking operators handle FEMA registration calls in Puerto Rico.
The Puerto Rican community of Culebra also began a FEMA-supported initiative several years ago to make that community more disaster resistant. Local hardware stores donated hurricane clips and straps that were placed in wood structures and waterfront restaurants which were then inspected by structural engineers and representatives from the Puerto Rico Regulations and Permits Administration to ensure that the clips and straps were properly installed according to the Puerto Rico building codes. Hurricane shutters and hurricane resistant windows were provided for the Culebra Health Center, Municipal Hall, Municipal Library, Elderly Center and Multiple Use Center.
Puerto Rico is also prone to smaller-scale disasters such as localized flooding and dangerous mudslides. "If a disaster isn't big enough to warrant a FEMA declaration, then even more of the recovery can fall to the churches," said Martinez.
Martinez is also the DRRL for New Mexico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But because his first language is Spanish he will be busy across the country when Spanish-speaking communities suffer from disasters.
CWS's full-time DRRLs have responsibility to monitor, assess, and report on disasters and respond as required in designated regions, but may work across the country. They provide a pastoral presence at disaster sites and work with faith-based responders to coordinate immediate response and relief and implement cooperative long-term recovery efforts. They are liaisons with the American Red Cross, FEMA, VOADs and other responders. They are also sources of public information on the role of the faith community in disaster response and recovery. Beyond their work in disasters, full-time DRRLs facilitate faith community disaster mitigation and preparedness as consultants and educators.
The job, Martinez said, is the most exciting ministry he's ever had.
"When they called me and told me I had this job, I've never felt so happy," he said.
As hurricane season continues to unfold, CWS can always use more kits, now and throughout the year, said Reed-Brown. CWS has planned the contents of each kit based on what is most widely used by refugees and disaster/emergency survivors across the globe.
Guides for how to assemble CWS kits can be found on the CWS Web site.
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