'Time to work' in Puerto Rico

BY SUSAN KIM | PUERTO RICO | October 14, 1998


PUERTO RICO (Oct. 14, 1998) - If the Rev. Francisco Velazquez-Rodriguez

has one wish for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Georges it

would be "cans of electricity," he says with a momentary smile.

Then he explains the serious needs of his people. "They need water, and

for that they need pumps, and for that they need electricity."

Electricity and water are largely restored in San Juan and in Puerto

Rico's other larger cities. But mountain communities on the east coast and

those west of San Juan could be waiting several weeks for essential

utilities. Many remote communities are still inaccessible since roads are

blocked by fallen trees or by the nearly daily mudslides.

Rodriguez's Presbyterian church, Aurea Lucciano, is housed in a

65-year-old building that fortunately sustained no major damage. But the

surrounding town of Cabo Rojo in the mountains of southwest Puerto Rico was

half destroyed.

And in Yauco, in the south mountains, all 2,900 homes in the community were

destroyed.

"The trees no longer have their root systems, so the normal afternoon

rainfall causes mudslides that close mountain roads for hours," said Gil

Furst, director of Lutheran Disaster Response, who traveled to Puerto Rico

last week to assess the damage and help organize response efforts.

Mountain roads are also blocked by downed concrete electrical poles.

Although built to withstand 150 mph winds -- about 45 mph more than

Hurricane Georges sustained -- the poles were overloaded with wires and

toppled anyway.

As roads to the mountain communities open up, the count of destroyed and

damaged homes keeps rising. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

now estimates 45,000 homes were destroyed and 60,000 more are without

roofs. More than 50,000 people are housed in shelters ranging from old

factories to churches to Red Cross facilities. Two hundred thousand gallons

of water

and 100,000 pounds of ice are still being delivered daily.

Georges also dealt a devastating blow to the island's farmers,

destroying 75 percent of the coffee crop, 95 percent of plantains and 65

percent of chickens.

Rodriguez has a second wish: a halt in partisan politics he says are

dividing Puerto Rico just when its people need to unite. As Puerto Ricans

prepare to vote on a referendum on statehood Dec. 19, disaster response

leaders worry that the divisive issue will tear the focus away from

recovery efforts.

"People in my church are 4,000 or 5,000 down on a waiting list for

disaster assistance," said Rodriguez. "My people are suffering, and right

now partisan politics is their worst enemy. In the middle of all this is

the church, and our response must be away and apart from all this."

The Rev. Rafael Moreno, a Pentecostal pastor based in San Juan, is

focused on coalescing an interfaith response that unites even unlikely

partners. "When things get down to the ground -- and they are -- it's time

to simply work," he said. "When Jesus fed 5,000 people, there was a miracle

involved. And so I believe that with every little bit we get, God will

multiply it."

As the count of displaced people increases, so do personal accounts of

loss. Wilmer Silva, a retired Presbyterian pastor who is helping organize

recovery, visited the town of Utuado in the west central mountains. "The

river had taken a two-story concrete house and dumped it on a corner in

town," he said. "There were cars just swimming."

Furst said he will never forget the dazed looks on people's faces. "One

woman who had lost her home was out in her yard with her wedding dress in

her arms," he said. "It was all brown and stained, and she was hanging it

in the sunshine hoping to bring the white back out."

Art Jackson, a disaster consultant for Church World Service and the

Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, drove through Fajardo in eastern

Puerto Rico. "People were just running up to the car, stopping us, and

saying 'Can you help us? Can you help us?' We couldn't offer them much at

that moment, but we just stopped and let them tell their story. It's

cathartic for people."

Once emergency needs are met -- which could take several weeks -- a

long-term disaster recovery will be implemented through an interfaith

organization involving the Southern Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Church

World Service, Mennonite Disaster Services, United Church of Christ, Church

of the Brethren, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, United

Methodist Committee of Relief and Catholic Social Services.

Part of the recovery effort could involve hands-on training for

residents on how to build more solid homes, said Furst. "We'd like to bring

in some skilled construction volunteers and produce a video showing the

steps people can take to make their homes stronger. Or we'd like to build a

demonstration house to serve as a model within communities. In the

mountains, just about everyone builds their own home out of sheet metal and

two-by-fours."

Furst would also like to approach nursing schools in Puerto Rico to

develop an education campaign to help people cope with post-hurricane

health issues. "For example, you don't need to boil five gallons of water

to make it drinkable," he said. "Seven drops of bleach will do it with a

lot less energy."

Shirley Norman, a CWS regional facilitator, also emphasized that

recovery in Puerto Rico must answer specific community needs and respect

local customs.

"You have to hear what they've saying even though you may not speak the

language," she said. "You have to be able to work within the culture and

let people decide what's best for them. We are here to give them the

resources and guidance they need."

Posted: Oct. 14, 1998


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