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PR trades politics for response logistics

BY SUSAN KIM | PUERTO RICO | January 11, 1999

PUERTO RICO (Jan. 11, 1999) - Putting a divisive statehood vote behind

them, disaster response leaders in Puerto Rico are concentrating on the

logistics of rebuilding the thousands of homes destroyed by Hurricane Georges

in September.

For the Rev. Francisco Vecezquez-Rodriguez, a Presbyterian pastor, that means

challenges like trying to find transportation for the 10 to 20-person

volunteer teams who are rebuilding homes in Puerto Rico's small mountain


"We've arranged housing and meals at the Presbyterian Conference Center for

the rebuild teams," said Rodriguez. "The biggest challenge left is

transportation. Right now we're renting two vans to transport volunteer teams,

but frankly that is costly and we'd like to buy new vans or receive donated


In an ecumenical effort, Rodriguez has been working with the Christian

Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) and Church World Service to coordinate

a long-term rebuild effort. The first volunteer team will arrive Jan. 16 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 alone.

Additional volunteer teams, who are already scheduled to work through May,

will also concentrate on rural mountain communities. CRWRC Project Manager Art

Jackson said that the mix of volunteers has been carefully planned. "We

usually have a site manager, a construction supervisor, some skilled

carpenters, and we also feel it's important to have our own translator.

Language is a key issue, especially in more remote communities where the

majority of residents speak only Spanish," he said.

CRWRC also plans to establish an account at a local bank in order to purchase

building materials.

This major interfaith partnership has formed in spite of a controversial

statehood vote in December, that had obstructed some previous interfaith

efforts when politically opposed community leaders or residents attempted a

united response. More than 55 percent of voting Puerto Ricans came out against

statehood, which came in second to the option "none of the above," a category

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

that time.

The vote was the latest installment of a political battle that has been going

on since 1952, however, results of this latest vote could mean several years

of relative quiet on the issue before there is any similar movement to change

the island's status.

Rodriguez said he feels a new "peace of mind. We simply needed more time to

decide, because right now we need to concentrate on rebuilding through the

summer and long after."

Rodriguez has also been working with draftsmen and engineers who have drawn

plans for hurricane-safe, affordable homes. "I have learned a lot about

construction codes myself," said Rodriguez. "Every time I pass by another

construction site, I start looking for ideas. We prefer to work with concrete.

It's safest in high winds."

With temperatures currently in the 70s during the day, volunteer teams should

be unhampered by the weather, at least for the time being.

Throughout the island, hurricane recovery is still at vastly different levels,

with resorts now enjoying peak tourist season in San Juan while many mountain

communities still need water and electricity. Residents in both rural

communities and cities are currently receiving checks from the Federal

Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Many are using FEMA funds to complete basic rebuilding, but still lack

building materials and household appliances.

The Rev. Rafael Moreno, a Pentecostal pastor in San Juan who has been

organizing donation distribution since just after Georges struck, said many people are still struggling to regain their previous standard of living.

"People are still struggling for the basics, and we as a community are still

trying to get back to a normal economy," he said.

First Harvest and the Food Bank of Puerto Rico have been distributing a

higher-than-usual volume of food, and the Salvation Army and American Red

Cross have also been providing donations.

On Jan. 6, when Puerto Rico celebrated Three King's Day, a traditional

gift-giving holiday, the National Guard, Toys for Tots, and Walgren's stores

collected toy donations for children.

A strong response from national faith-based denominations is also continuing,

with the American Baptist Convention, Lutheran Disaster Response, Presbyterian

Disaster Assistance, United Methodist Committee on Relief, and Mennonite

Church planning to send teams of volunteers to rebuild homes for the next year

at least.

At interfaith meetings, ecumenical leaders have also been shaping a response

focused on the needs of the island's small farmers, on developing a curriculum

on disaster response for Puerto Rico's seminary students, and on establishing

a warehouse of hurricane response supplies such as generators, blankets, and

health kits that would serve the entire Caribbean region.

Organizing an ecumenical response is 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.

Churches across the island are also still collecting funds for Hurricane Mitch

survivors in Central America. "Even though we were stricken by Georges, we

share what we have," said Moreno.

Posted: Jan. 11, 1999

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