70,000 request aid in Puerto Rico

Just because Hurricane Jeanne did not directly hit Puerto Rico does not mean the island escaped damage.


"All that adds up to major needs."

—Heriberto Martinez

Just because Hurricane Jeanne did not directly hit Puerto Rico does not mean the island escaped damage.

According to Federal Emergency Management Agency, the island has racked up over 70,000 applications for federal disaster relief assistance so far - and that number is growing.

"We were really affected by this storm," said Church World Service (CWS) Disaster Resource and Recovery Liaison Heriberto Martinez. "At the beginning we didn't think it would be that big, but it was - and many of those affected are poor," explained Martinez, who added that 58 of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities were declared federal disaster areas.

Martinez said he is worried that the lack of attention on the island's needs will only hinder recovery efforts. "Many eyes on are Florida, understandably, but Puerto Rico is part of the United States, too."

Jeanne was only a tropical storm when it brushed Puerto Rico, but the high winds and heavy rains were still enough to cause major damage. Winds ripped off roofs and floods forced over 12 feet of water through many homes. Many residents went without clean water for days, and some areas are still without power. "All that adds up to major needs," said Martinez.

Churches and nonprofit organizations across the island are working as best they can to meet emergency needs, and only just recently have been able to start planning for the long-term. Martinez said he has not only been coordinating the distribution of CWS disaster relief kits, but he has also been working with the Presbyterians, Lutheran Disaster Response, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, the United Church of Christ and the Salvation Army.

The focus is on those who will receive a little or no federal assistance, he noted, as many people did not have flood insurance or are undocumented residents. UMCOR's director for disaster response in Puerto Rico, Haydee Lopez, agreed.

"We have a lot of families that won't qualify for (Federal Emergency Management Agency) assistance."

Current needs include housing, food, and everyday items. Lopez said UMCOR not only sent an emergency grant to the region, but that they are also helping residents replace many basic supplies, such as clothing, mattresses, and school supplies.

Another major issue is the emotional and spiritual needs of adults and children.

"There is a lot of depression and some people are suicidal. I've been just listening to some people who need it," said Martinez, who is also an ordained minister.

UMCOR is working through its local pastors to reach out and provide spiritual assistance. Lopez added that they are also focusing on children's emotional care through a new program called 'Yo Estoy Seguro' (I Am Safe). The Saturday program helps kids process their feelings. She said they hope to receive more funding so that the program can continue in the long-term.

More overall funding is needed as well as all the agencies work together for affected residents.

"We need the support of many organizations to help the people," said Martinez. "This may be a small island, but there's a big need."

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