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From tears to hope in Puerto Rico

BY SUSAN KIM | PUERTO RICO | August 17, 1999

PUERTO RICO (Aug. 17, 1999) -- With 11 months of recovery work behind

them, U.S.-based and Puerto Rican response leaders alike are looking

at a profoundly different scene than they were just after Hurricane

Georges devastated the island.

More than 45,000 homes were destroyed by the September 1998

hurricane, with 60,000 more left without roofs. Georges also left

mountain roads inaccessible for months and destroyed 75 percent of

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


The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided disaster assistance

to repair thousands of homes. But families with lingering unmet need

relied on faith-based teams, based in both Puerto Rico and the U.S.

Together, volunteers helped repair more than 2,000 homes, cleaned

tons of debris, and forged long-lasting interfaith partnerships.

From January to August, the Presbyterian Conference Center alone

housed more than 400 volunteers, said the Rev. Francisco

Vecezquez-Rodriguez, a Presbyterian pastor who has helped lead

interfaith recov

ery efforts.

While a few U.S.-based response workers remain, Vecezquez-Rodriguez

said that Puerto Rico is ready to continue on its own, even while

keeping watch for future storms. Through 11 regional interfaith

coordinators, a disaster response committee, some with formal

training from Church World Service, will ensure ongoing recovery and

thoughtful preparation for the next hurricane.

In the past 11 months, faith-based groups -- including Lutheran

Disaster Response, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Christian

Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), Church of the Brethren,

Church World Service, Mennonite Disaster Services, Adventist

Community Service, United Methodist Committee on Relief, Catholic

Relief Services, American Baptists, United Church of Christ, and

Pentecostal Church -- have been sending volunteers and making

contributions toward long-term recovery.

The Rev. Paul Carlson, pastor at the New Life Lutheran Church in

Bolingbrook, Ill., led a team of 18 high school youths and 4 adults

on a week-long trip to Puerto Rico this month.

Carlson, who counts the trip as one of the most rewarding he has ever

made, said that the biggest challenges were the heat and language

barriers. "It was 95 degrees every day, and even though we had a few

students who could speak Spanish, communication in rural areas was

difficult," he said.

Brian Shivers, director of youth and college ministries for the

Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Ind., led a volunteer

trip for 33 youth who also worked on homes during their nine-day trip.

"It was a great experience," said 16-year-old Ian Sando. "I would

definitely go on another trip like this. We poured cement, we used

machetes, we painted -- I've helped my dad before, but nothing like

that! It was hard work, but worth it."

Noah Sando, Ian's 17-year-old brother, added, "it was unbelievable.

There were so many unexpected things. The hospitality people showed

was amazing. But so was the poverty you saw. One thing I did was

helped two men repair a roof for a woman and her three kids. The two

men didn't speak English but they still taught us how to use the


Art Jackson, who served as CRWRC project manager in Puerto Rico,

recalled coordinating five teams -- a total of 47 volunteers. Working

in the western highlands, the teams often had to transport concrete

and cinder block up twisting, narrow mountain roads.

"This work was quite gratifying," Jackson said. "We built nine homes

in six different villages in an area that wasn't easy to work in at


From the Presbyterian Conference Center where they were housed, it

took Jackson's teams more than an hour to get on site each day. "The

residents and the local leaders accomplished a lot," he said. "They

helped lead us all the way."

Organizing an ecumenical response was challenging simply because of

the mileage 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.

Interfaith relations were also challenged by a controversial statehood vote

in December 1998, which politically divided community leaders and residents.

More than 55 percent of voting Puerto Ricans did not vote for statehood,

with most of those choosing the option "none of the above," a category for

those who believed that the populace was simply not ready to decide at that

time. Results of that latest vote could mean several years of relative quiet

on the issue before there is any similar movement to change the island's


With the vote behind them, response leaders began coordinating

volunteer teams in earnest, with first team arriving in January 1999

to rebuild homes in Lares, a mountain community in Puerto Rico's

northwestern highlands that was devastated by the hurricane. More

than 1,500 homes were destroyed and another 1,500 damaged in Lares


Volunteer teams nearly always partnered with other denominations.

Many also participated in special worship services at Puerto Rican

churches, including a recent service entitled "Gracias Voluntarios,"

held at the Reconciliacion Lutheran Church in Levittown, and designed

to thank all those who made recovery possible.

Gil Furst, director of Lutheran Disaster Response, who left Puerto

Rico earlier this month, contrasted the scenes just after Hurricane

Georges -- "tear-stained

faces, people standing in ruins, incredible damage, and debris" --

with those 11 months later - "smiling faces, people standing in

repaired dwellings, cleaned yards and villages."

Updated: Aug. 25, 1999

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