PR response efforts forge new networks

BY SUSAN KIM | PUERTO RICO | December 1, 1998


PUERTO RICO (Dec. 1, 1998) -- Missionaries who first arrived in Puerto

Rico at the turn of the century shaped much of the island's spiritual

beliefs -- and they're shaping the hurricane response here nearly a century

later.

When early missionaries of various denominations traveled to the island,

they

left concentrated regional denominational "pockets" that still exist today.

Church leaders organizing an interfaith response to Hurricane Georges, which

struck Sept. 21 and left thousands homeless, have the advantage of strong

denominational unity -- but face the challenge of uniting churches that have

traditionally worked separately.

Organizing hurricane response means forging communication between church

strongholds -- Presbyterians in the west, United Church of Christ in the east,

Methodists in the northwest, Lutherans in the northeast, and Pentecostals and

Catholics throughout the island.

"Since the entire island was affected, it's

important to do an ecumenical response," said Stan Hankins with Presbyterian

Disaster Assistance, who traveled to Puerto Rico two weeks ago to help

organize long-term response. "There are still a lot of blue tarps on roofs,"

he said, referring to blue plastic issued by the Federal Emergency Management

Agency (FEMA) to cover homes that lost roofs in the storm. "And there is still

so much damage to crops of plantains, bananas, coffee trees that small farmers

will have a hard time getting back on their feet."

At an interfaith meeting 10 days ago, ecumenical leaders had some clear

ideas

for long-term response, said Bob Arnold and Joann Hale of the Church World

Service. First, churches would like to shape a response focused on the needs

of the island's small farmers. "One recommendation was to bring in an

agronomist to help with family farms," said Hale.

Other recommendations include developing a curriculum on disaster

response for

Puerto Rico's seminary students, as well as establishing a warehouse of

hurricane response supplies such as generators, blankets, and health kits that

would serve the entire Caribbean region. Church leaders would also like to

create a venue - through forums or conferences - to give volunteers a chance

to share problems and solutions.

A special recognition ceremony for volunteers is also being planned to

coincide with Martin Luther King Day in January.

"The long-term ecumenical response is still evolving," said Arnold. "But

clearly the relief supplies that have arrived are being distributed

effectively at the local level."

Hurricane recovery is still at vastly different levels throughout the

island.

For example, while most resorts in the San Juan area are fully open for

tourists, many mountain communities are still suffering. "There are still

people without electricity or water," said Wilmer Silva, a retired

Presbyterian pastor who is helping to lead the interfaith response. "People

are still being housed in empty factories and temporary FEMA trailers. But for

the most part people's spirits are high. In fact, many people are focused on

how they can help in Honduras even though they're still in need

themselves."

The Hato Rey Presbyterian Church, which Silva attends, lost half its second

story in the hurricane. "It will cost $7,000 to replace it with a concrete

second story," he said. "Needless to say, we're still in need of funds."

Meanwhile response from national denominations continues to be strong. The

American Baptist Convention (ABC), Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), Christian

Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), United Methodist Committee on

Relief (UMCOR),

and Mennonite Church (MDS) are sending teams of volunteers to rebuild homes

for the

next year at least.

"We plan to be here for the long haul," said Gil Furst, of LDR. "The

signs of

recovery are easy to spot in the city, but as soon as you head out into the

countryside, the needs become immediately apparent. Our volunteers have been

working, for example, in the home of a 70-year-old widow, helping her dispose

of water-damaged furnishings, clothing, and other personal items, as well as

cleaning the mud and scum off her floor and putting a new door on her house -

just one incident among tens of thousands of needs here."

Johanna Olson, also with LDR, said that various denominations coordinating

volunteers need funding. "Volunteers are coming forth, we have housing, and we

have staff slowly coming together, however, we can't schedule our efforts too

far into the summer without wondering about funding."

Those coordinating volunteers also face the challenge of time-consuming

travel

by car to the island's mountain communities. Many roads are still inaccessible

or hazardous due to ongoing mudslides, washed-out bridges, or remaining

debris. "And the rain is daily, and our telephone lines to the sites are still

not operable -- so we have a few steps to take," said Olson.

Art Jackson, project manager with CRWRC, will begin coordinating teams of

12-24 people in January. "We send volunteer teams for three-week stints, and

the groups usually have a site manager, a construction supervisor, some

skilled carpenters, and some unskilled volunteers who are willing to learn,"

he said.

Almost every disaster response organiztion reports a need for

Spanish-speaking volunteers. As

thousands of loan applications and damage reports from Puerto Rico are still

being filed with FEMA and the Small Business Administration, the SBA is also

actively recruiting Spanish-speaking people to process applications and answer

questions.

Posted: Dec. 1, 1998


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