Michelle Maldonado visited Puerto Rico nearly a year after Hurricane Maria passed over the island. She was inspired by the community she found in Puerto Rico, and challenged by all that is still waiting to be done. This is her travel journal of the visit:
A tree that fell during the storm in a popular area of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico was spray painted by locals with the flag. Photo by Michelle Maldonado.
As my plane started to make its descent into the Luis Muños Marin International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I could hear passengers gasping and commenting on how many “blue roofs” were visible underneath the plane. I looked out of my window and sure enough, there were thousands of blue tarps draped over the roofs of homes as far as we could see at that altitude. I was saddened: If there were this many blue roofs in the Metropolitan area eleven months after Hurricane Maria, it meant that the countryside, where my family lives, was worse-off than had I imagined.
Descent into Luis Muños Marin International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Michelle Maldonado 8/18/2018.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into the island of Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm. Officially, the highest winds recorded on the island measured 175 MPH. Unofficially, locals say that in the mountains, winds reached well beyond 200 MPH. They jokingly call Hurricane Maria a Category 6 storm.
In the weeks and months following the storm, Puerto Rico experienced something like scenes from an apocalyptic movie. There was no water, no food, no electricity, no phone lines, cell phone towers nor internet - and worst of all - little emergency aid. The medical system collapsed and help did not arrive fast enough. Puerto Rico lived this reality for weeks that turned into months. Did I mention that this storm hit on the heels of Hurricane Irma which had caused its share of devastation on the north side of the island just two weeks before?
Leaders from the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico, as well as the locals I met, said the island looked like an atomic bomb had gone off. What is normally a lush tropical island was stripped of all its green beauty by the high winds. Wood structures disappeared and cement structures toppled over. It took days for people to clear out roads.
High winds destroyed the vegetation leaving behind bare trees. Photo by Gustavo Vasquez. September 2017.
Almost a year later, the environment has recovered, yet there are still lingering reminders both in nature and in the infrastructure that something terrible happened not so long ago.
Dried up trees stick out of the tall grass and recovering vegetation. Photo by Michelle Maldonado August 25, 2018.
In mid-August of 2018, there were news reports on the U.S. mainland that electricity was officially restored to everyone on the island, but locals say that is not true. The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico identified multiple communities inland and on the smaller islands of Vieques and Culebra that have yet to receive electricity.
I journeyed inland, high up in the mountains where my family lives, and sure enough, there are areas that do not have electricity.
Hurricane Maria caused massive flooding throughout the island--both in coastal regions and inland. Many neighborhoods close to the ocean were completely submerged in water. Other neighborhoods suffered massive erosion when the waters came in.
A house on the coast of Manatí collapsed when floodwaters eroded the foundation. Photo by Michelle Maldonado.
Bridges and roads that were originally washed out by the storm 11 months before have yet to be repaired or have temporary iron plates serving as a bridge for light vehicles. Roadways are littered with official signs from municipalities warning of danger ahead or makeshift spray-painted signs from residents directing traffic another way.
A bridge connecting a costal neighborhood washed out when sea levels rose during Hurricane Maria. Photo by Michelle Maldonado.
The death toll for Hurricane Maria is a debated subject. It was originally reported after the storm that around 16 people had died. Then it was elevated to around 64. Puerto Ricans loudly contested this number saying it was in the thousands. After studies done by several universities and news organizations, that number unofficially rose to 1,427, yet it was still met with skepticism. That number continues to increase every few months. Leaders of the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico say that the number is actually closer to over 3,000 deaths based on what they have seen and heard as they deal with the aftermath.
Locals in the countryside remarked there was no one that could pick up the bodies of dead loved ones. Morgues and funeral homes were either full to maximum capacity running on a generator or they had no electricity. Loved ones were buried in their family’s backyards because there were not other options. As death kept increasing, some locations managed to get several large refrigerated semi trucks to store as many bodies as possible.
Photo by Michelle Maldonado
Rebuilding, Rehace and UMCOR
I spoke in depth with United Methodists that came down from the United States to help the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico rebuild communities. I should note that The United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico (IMPR) are two different entities that are historically connected and continue to support each other.
The United Methodist Church has a group called UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief). UMCOR travels the world lending aid to communities that have experienced natural disasters. They are famously known for their “flood buckets” and for being the first to arrive on scene after a disaster and being the last to leave after everyone has recovered.
A number of UMCOR flood buckets lined the back wall of the distribution center ready to be sent out when needed. Photo by Michelle Maldonado.
The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico and UMCOR partnered up after Hurricane Maria and created the Rehace (pronounced Re-ah-se) initiative. In Post-Maria Puerto Rico, Rehace is tasked with the reconstruction of homes, but most importantly, they help families get through the psychological effects of surviving a devastating natural disaster.
The Rehace and Methodist Church of Puerto Rico offices are located in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. Photo by Michelle Maldonado.
Rehace is an acronym and a play on words in Spanish. It literally means “redo.” The families that enter Rehace are assigned a social worker that helps them receive government aid, medical care, a construction team, as well as spiritual care.
Nilsa Median has a two-story home in the city of Hatillo. Hatillo is a coastal town on the north-central side of the Puerto Rico. It was an area that was devastated by the storm as it exited the island. Nilsa lives on the first floor with her daughter and grandson. Her first floor is made out of concrete and survived the storm with minor damages. The second floor is her mother’s house. It was made of wood. When the storm came through, it destroyed the second floor.
Nilsa's second story was destroyed by Hurricane Maria. Photo by Michelle Maldonado.
Nilsa attends Betel Methodist Church in Hatillo and was able to get help. Rehace was adamant about letting people know that anyone who needs aid, Methodist or not, receives it. Missionaries from UMC conferences came down to Puerto Rico to rebuild her second story. At this particular home, there were folks from Virginia and North Carolina.
Photo by Michelle Maldonado
Because Puerto Rico is an island sitting in the middle of hurricane-prone Caribbean waters, Rehace is rebuilding homes out of cement and cinder blocks. As meteorologists have been predicting more storms during the current 2018 hurricane season, Rehace, missionaries and construction crews are experiencing some pressure to provide sturdy roofs before the next storm hits.
Photo by Michelle Maldonado
The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico started a distribution center at Puerto Nuevo Methodist Church in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico where clothing, toiletries, food, baby and elderly care products are stored. It was from this location that bags of food and basic items were packaged and loaded onto a church van for distribution in neighborhoods where help had not arrived.
At Puerto Nuevo Methodist Church, plastic grocery bags were filled with food and basic items then loaded onto a church van and distributed to neighborhoods. Photo by Rev. Virna Solis, September 2017.
Currently this distribution center is stockpiling for the next storm of the season as it simultaneously continues to send food, toiletries and even furniture to families in the process of rebuilding their homes.
Every room of the center is full to the roof with supplies and food. Photo by Michelle Maldonado
A year has passed since both hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Nearly half a million Puerto Ricans have moved away from the island and resettled, mostly in Central Florida, as well as the New York- and Chicago-area. Those who have remained on the island deal with an unprecedented natural disaster, a crashing economy and a faulty government.Still, their spirits and determination to and rebuild remains strong. Flags fly high and proud all over the island.
Businesses have signs reading, “Ya Estamos Abiertos, Puerto Rico Se Levanta” or “Yes we are open, Puerto Rico will rise again.” The social media hashtag #PuertoRicoSeLevanta or #PRSeLevanta is spray painted everywhere as a reminder.
Puerto Ricans are a very proud people, and they are especially proud of their tropical island and its natural wonder. To see it devastated was heartbreaking for many on the island and on the mainland. “Puerto Rico rises” not only refers to the people, it refers to the environment. And nature is certainly rising. Mountains are green again, the waters are turquoise and the animals are back.
Photo by Michelle Maldonado
The absence of half a million people, plus the thousands that died, is noticeable in churches, schools, traffic, and the Metropolitan area. During my time in Puerto Rico, I heard some horrific stories from my family, locals and church leaders of the things they experienced following the storm. But I also heard the stories of how neighbors who had never met helped each other survive. Estranged families reunited. I repeatedly heard that the Christmas following the storm was the best Christmas in years despite having no water or electricity. People are happy to be alive and they are grateful to have their families. Some families lost loved ones, as did my family, but that has solidified familial bonds. I saw Puerto Ricans being more appreciative of their families and community during an era where individualism almost invaded the culture. This is a culture of resiliency and unity, where finding the positive and the light-hearted side of hardships and pulling yourself and your family by the bootstraps eases the burden of being a colonized island and people.
Puerto Rico’s reconstructing is an ongoing effort that will take years. If you feel called to do something, even at one year after the storm, you are not too late. There are continuous volunteer opportunities through UMCOR with Rehace. If you cannot do physical labor, can’t take time off from school or work, of just can’t make the trip, consider donating to UMCOR’s U.S.Disaster Response fund. UMCOR and Rehace are using these funds to buy construction materials, emergency supplies and for other expenses.
#PueroRicoSeLevanta just as the sun rises everyday en la Isla del Encanto (the Island of Enchantment).
Photo by Michelle Maldonado
Michelle Maldonado is the Director of Seeker Communications at United Methodist Communications.
[Posted September 19, 2018]