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Response quick in Puerto Rico

BY KAREN BOTHAM | PUERTO RICO | September 26, 1998

PUERTO RICO, Sept. 26, 1998 -- There's little electricity, only a few

people have water and many people have damaged or destroyed homes, but just

two hours after Hurricane Georges left Puerto Rico this week local

residents began to restore their homeland.

"The eye went through at 5 in the morning and by 7 our people were in

the streets cleaning, not the government, the people," said Francisco

Velazquez, a pastor of the Aurea Luciano Presbyterian Church in Cavo Rojo,

Puerto Rico, and a volunteer with the Presbyterian Disaster Team.

"The people have taken over the task of cleaning all streets and avenues

around Puerto Rico. We are fighting back." While Velazquez has spent his

days helping his congregation begin rebuilding their lives, disaster

response organizations have begun pouring in supplies and personnel to help

out.

And it is just the beginning.

"This is the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in 70 years," says Eliezer

Melendez, Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) Puerto Rico director.

"Everywhere the scene is of downed and twisted trees, people standing in

lines for drinking water, houses without roofs, curbs lined with debris,

and fields filled with water," according to Gil Furst, director of Lutheran

Disaster Response who arrived in Puerto Rico on Wednesday.

"Concrete houses now built in Puerto Rico have by and large withstood

the hurricane forces. But older wooden and tin-roofed houses are badly

damaged or blown away by the tornadoes spawned by Georges," he added.

In "Villa 2000" in Las Parcelas Higuillas, 400 of the 600 homes have

been damaged or destroyed. "The entire community, from one side of the

horizon to the other, lies in ruins." Furst said.

More than 600 volunteers from ADRA are providing assistance to hurricane

survivors. In coordination with the American Red Cross, some 300 medical

cadets began a house-to-house damage assessment within hours after the

skies began to clear Tuesday. The cadets, many in their teens, have

received specialized training for their work in monthly meetings.

Darren Irby, an American Red Cross representative that was part an

advance team to arrive on Puerto Rico, said 1,000 local volunteers are

helping the government run the shelters. "We've been impressed with the

resiliency of individuals and family members here," Irby said.

ADRA has more than 300 other volunteers assisting in the collection,

sorting and distribution of relief items, including food, water, blankets

and Visquine, a special protective house wrap, supplied by the Federal

Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Damages to the island's communication infrastructure is making it

difficult to ascertain the true picture of the disaster.

Juan Vera-Mendez, a bishop with the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico,

said in a phone call to the offices of the United Methodist Committee of

Relief, that because of downed trees, washouts and mudslides sending a

vehicle into the hardest hit areas wasn't feasible.

Even Velazquez has had trouble reaching the other five representatives

from the ecumenical council that will be coordinating the disaster relief

efforts. Because of that difficulty, he said he doubts the government's

assertion that only eight percent of the island is still without phone

service.

Jane Gallagher, director of disaster response for Catholic Charities

U.S.A., said she's been unable to reach the Catholic Social Services office

on the island, but was finally able to reach two nuns through their convent

numbers. The biggest need now is for financial donations, one of the nuns

told Gallagher, but even if checks could be sent to Puerto Rico, banks are

still closed because of the severe power outages.

In the aftermath of such a strong storm, all normal operating procedures

fall by the wayside. What would typically work in a state-side disaster,

doesn't work when the disaster site is surrounded by water.

"All bets are off," Gallagher said.

The Rev. Yamina Apolinaris, executive minister of the Baptist Churches

of Puerto Rico, said her denomination is attempting to bypass the island's

communication problems by using short-wave radio.

Utility company officials estimated Saturday that electricity will be fully

restored in most urban areas by next week, but Apolinaris said water may be

unavailable to many citizens of the island for at least three weeks.

Church World Service has already issued an appeal of $50,000 to begin

preliminary relief and assessment efforts in Puerto Rico, the Dominican

Republic and Haiti. In addition, CWS is sending one of its disaster

response consultants to Puerto Rico help coordinate efforts to create a

long-term recovery plan.

Five days after the category three hurricane travelled across Puerto

Rico, 27,000 people are still in shelters, 99 percent of the island is

without power and 77 percent of the island is without water, Velazquez

said. The major relief efforts now must be concentrated on safety, security

and sanitation, according to Wendy Whiteside with UMCOR.

"There has been no place in Puerto Rico that has not been affected,"

Velazquez said. "Most of the worst hit people were in my church." Velazquez

is spendinghis days on the roofs of those in his congregation and their

relatives using leftover tarps given to him by the Federal Emergency

Management Agency (FEMA) to temporarily make homes liveable.

According to FEMA, Puerto Rican schools sustained little damage in the

storm and said the Governor plans to reopen all schools, except those being

used as shelters, on Monday.

Georges dealt a devastating blow to the island's farmers. According to

FEMA, the storm destroyed 75 percent of the coffee crop, 95 percent of

Puerto Rico's plantains and 65 percent of its chickens.

Despite damage estimates nearing the $2 billion mark, just three deaths

have been reported as a direct result of the hurricane; seven others died

after suffering heart attacks from stress brought on by the hurricane. In

contrast, hundreds lost their lives in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Posted 9:00 p.m. - September 26, 1998


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