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Much of Puerto Rico still has no power, aid distribution facing obstacles

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By Catholic News Service

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico — The only way a military veteran who works for the Diocese of Caguas could get a message out from Puerto Rico to contacts elsewhere illustrates conditions in Puerto Rico nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island Sept. 20.

Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, Puerto Rico, speaks during an Oct. 10 news conference in San Juan. The Catholic Church in Puerto Rico announced that it has already helped at least 50,000 affected by the Hurricane Maria with food and clothes. (CNS photo/Jorge Muniz, EPA)

“He sent the email from his car in the mountains, the only place where he can charge his phone and get some periodic reception,” reported Joe Boland, vice president of mission at Chicago-based Catholic Extension.

He got word from the veteran “that they have armed guards at gas stations. Communications and transportation are still a mess,” Boland said in an email sent to Catholic News Service in Washington Oct. 10.

After surviving the devastation wrought by Maria, Bishop Eusebio Ramos Morales of Caguas finally reached a functioning land line at one of his parishes and the first phone call he made was to Catholic Extension.

The bishop reached Boland and described the island of 3.4 million people as being in a total state of chaos. He said the Catholic Church was paralyzed due to the inability for anyone to travel or communicate. He reached out, hoping that Catholic Extension could help in some way.

A week after Maria hit, Catholic Extension was able to send $325,000 in relief funds for the six dioceses of Puerto Rico, with another $25,000 going to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Catholic Extension is a national fundraising organization that helps build churches and supports church ministries and other efforts in U.S. home missions. It has had a decades-long relationship with Puerto Rico. It first assisted the Archdiocese of San Juan with a church-building project in 1908.

“Catholic Extension is once again stepping forward to assist Catholic churches in need, continuing its century long mission of building faith, inspiring hope and igniting change,” said Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, chancellor of Catholic Extension, in a statement. “Chicagoans once again have a reason to be proud that Catholic Extension has its roots here.”

Other agencies that have provided aid include Catholic Charities USA, which sent $1 million in emergency aid to Caritas Puerto Rico, and the Knights of Columbus, which has sent $100,000 in aid.

As of Oct. 10, just 16 percent of electricity service had been restored. At an Oct. 6 news conference, Gov. Ricardo A. Rossello told reporters officials expected to have 25 percent of the electrical system restored “within the next month.” About 67 percent of cellphone towers remained down.

      Most Puerto Ricans are still struggling to get basic necessities — food, water, fuel, medicine, currency — and several relief organizations continue to face obstacles getting aid to those who need it most because of fuel shortages, and a majority of the roads are in ruins. The New York Times reported that only 392 miles of the 5,073 miles of the island’s roads are open.

At least 43 people have died as a result of the hurricane; officials said that number could rise as communication systems improve.

Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan announced at a news conference Oct. 10 that the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico has already helped at least 50,000 affected by the Hurricane Maria with food and clothes.

A few days after the hurricane hit, Archbishop Gonzalez’s staff sent an email to Catholic Extension at his request with a subject line that said: “WE WILL RISE!” It asked for help to “lift our diocesan infrastructure and (support) the parishes with the biggest damage.”

Catholic Extension said it has been “extraordinarily difficult for the Puerto Rican bishops and diocesan leaders to communicate with us, because provisional cellphone towers are only located in certain places and only function during certain hours. It is even hard for them to communicate with one another because many roads are still blocked or ripped up due to mudslides, and gasoline is nearly impossible to procure.”

As a result, it has been difficult for dioceses to assess the extent of damage to church property.

Beyond the obstacles to getting around to assess property damage in Puerto Rico’s six dioceses has been the challenge of getting the Catholic Church on the island “up and running again without having any sources of income for the foreseeable future — paying staff, keeping the lights on, and maintaining operations,” as well as “dealing with the humanitarian crisis” that is ongoing in terms of “feeding and sheltering people.”

Catholic Extension said it will help with the rebuilding and repairing of churches destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Maria, but, the statement said, that “will be a priority down the road.”

The organization is accepting donations at www.catholicextension.org/give/hurricane-support, with the amount to be matched dollar by dollar by some of Catholic Extension’s longtime donors.

Health care workers continue to sound the alarm about dire conditions and countless numbers of residents they say are still in desperate need of assistance.

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said 16,000 federal and military assets are on the ground in Puerto Rico and about 350,000 Puerto Ricans have registered so far in the FEMA system to receive financial assistance.

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A week after surviving hurricane, Puerto Ricans beg for help

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More than a week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, much of the island remained without communication and in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

A woman carries bottles of water and food during a distribution of relief items Sept. 24 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, days after Hurricane Maria. (CNS photo/Alvin Baez, Reuters)

News programs have been broadcasting about long lines of travelers, who have little food or water, and are desperate to get off the island at the San Juan airport to no avail. 

But the scene of destruction outside the airport is even more stark: An island whose dense tropical landscape, along with its infrastructure, towns and cities, has been greatly stripped by winds that reached 155 mph.

Catholic Church groups have mobilized to send help. Some organizations, however, have reported problems mobilizing the aid out of airports and into the places and people who need them.

Officials say Hurricane Maria left 16 dead in Puerto Rico, 27 dead in Dominica and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But accurate information has been hard to come by since cellphone service and electricity, along with access to water and fuel, have been knocked out. Many roads into rural areas still are blocked by debris, making it difficult to access those who live there.

Many Puerto Ricans in the mainland U.S. have been making desperate pleas on social media to see if others can give them information about relatives or conditions in town or cities where their relatives live but which remain without communication.

President Donald Trump is set to visit Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.4 million, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands on Oct. 3. He has largely been criticized for what some perceive as a slow humanitarian response and for spending time tweeting against athletes as Puerto Rico suffered. But when he got around to tweeting about the island’s misery, he also offended many by bringing up its debt, including debt to Wall Street, as well as the island’s pre-existing failing infrastructure.

It took a week for the U.S. to send a plane carrying 3,500 pounds of water as well as food and other supplies to the island, but the president said, “It’s on an island in the middle of the ocean. … You can’t just drive your trucks there from other states.” A hospital ship also has been sent.

Scarcity of food, water and fuel is rampant. The deaths of two patients in intensive care at a San Juan hospital were blamed on lack of fuel.

On Sept. 27, the Trump administration said it would not waive shipping restrictions to get fuel and supplies to island, angering politicians such as U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who asked the Department of Homeland Security to waive the restrictions known as the Jones Act.

Many, such as New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, are in the meantime offering Masses as well collecting donations to help in a long recovery ahead for Puerto Rico.

Cardinal Dolan will celebrate a Mass in Spanish at St. Patrick’s Cathedral Oct. 8, to “express prayerful solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico and Mexico, and their relatives and friends in New York, in the wake of the natural disasters that have ravaged both lands this month,” according to an article in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York.

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Jesuit in Puerto Rico calls hurricane damage ‘apocalyptic’

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Catholic News Service

It took a couple of days for Jesuit Father Flavio Bravo to venture out and survey the devastation of Hurricane Maria, with its torrential rain and winds of 155 miles per hour, inflicted for hours on the island of Puerto Rico.

Wind from Hurricane Maria bent this iron cross Sept. 20 on top of a tower at the entrance of the Jesuit Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The deadly hurricane plowed into Puerto Rico Sept. 20 with winds up to 155-miles-per-hour. (CNS photo/courtesy Jesuit Father Flavio Bravo)

“We were trapped,” because of debris, said Father Bravo, the superior of the Society of Jesus’ Puerto Rico community, recounting the initial aftermath of the hurricane on the island. When Father Bravo finally managed to get outside, the scene was nothing short of “apocalyptic,” he said during a Sept. 22 telephone interview with Catholic News Service.

In what was once a lush forest, the palm trees that are still standing look more like telephone poles because they have no leaves on them. Before Maria, it was hard to see anything past the dense tropical foliage, and now “you can see all along.” Seeing the fallen trees, “it is brutal,” Father Bravo said.

But what was most shocking, said Father Bravo, was the sight of the cross at the entrance of Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola, the secondary school the Jesuits operate on the island: The 6-foot-5-inch cross was bent into a 45-degree angle by the hurricane’s forceful winds and now looks almost like a sword planted on the cement post.

“It was a sight that touched me. But that cross invites me to think: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ?” Father Bravo said, citing part of the Jesuits’ Spiritual Exercises. “It was a message of destruction but also of reconstruction.”

Puerto Rico, as well as other places affected by September’s back-to-back hurricanes, first Irma and now Maria, has a long way to go before life returns to normal.

Father Bravo said the aftermath has left a pile of emotions and thoughts almost as high as the debris: sadness, desperation from lack of communication, the poor who already were suffering will now suffer more, wanting to help but not knowing where to begin. It feels daunting, he said.

Those who have been able to free themselves from damaged buildings and homes are out looking for neighbors, family, making sure everyone is OK.

“There isn’t a sense of panic, but (rather) sadness. … You don’t know how to console, or be consoled” because there’s so much destruction all around, he said.

Puerto Rico, which already was experiencing economic problems because of huge debt due to mismanagement, had an infrastructure with massive problems before the hurricanes arrived. The economy already was weak, people were leaving the island behind and with it, family, because of the financial problems. And now those who had little, have nothing, Father Bravo said.

“It’s an avalanche of disasters, one disaster after another disaster,” he said.

One of Father Bravo’s tasks is to repair the damage done to the Jesuit school, which educates more than 600 in San Juan, and which already had suffered damage from Hurricane Irma. Electricity will not return for a long time, he said, maybe four to six months. There is a lot of broken glass, damages to buildings, and debris to clear.

And yet, he said, the feeling he hangs onto is of gratitude to God, gratitude to those who are thinking about those who are suffering on the island and other places, gratitude for those who have been moved with compassion, gratitude for those who have helped and want to help, and gratitude for those “who have not allowed us to feel the emptiness,” he said. Even in the midst of tragedy, “we are seeking the greater glory of God,” said Father Bravo. The Society of Jesus in Puerto Rico wants to offer its thanks for the help and support it will take to raise, in the middle of an aftermath, a path of hope to face the future ahead.

The website for the Jesuit’s province lists a link for donations at jesuitscentralsouthern.org to help with recovery efforts.

     

Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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Catholics in Puerto Rico deal with Hurricane Maria’s wrath

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Catholic News Service

Authorities say it may take months for electricity to fully return to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island and its infrastructure as it made landfall Sept. 20.

People walk in a flooded street Sept. 21 in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (CNS photo/Thais Llorca, EPA)

When the hurricane hit the island with winds of up to 155 miles per hour, it tore out cables, roofs from homes and buildings, uprooted palm trees and even bent a cross anchored to a cement post at the entrance of a Jesuit school.

It has been difficult to communicate with the those on the island, said Capuchin Franciscan Father Urbano Vasquez, of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, who studied in Puerto Rico and has vast ties to the island. He has been trying to communicate, to no avail, with a community of Poor Clares in Cidra, Puerto Rico, and others he knows on the island, but phone service is hit or miss.

Father Vasquez, however, was able to make contact with a group of seven Capuchin Franciscan friars after the hurricane passed. They took refuge from the storm in Trujillo Alto, about 10 minutes from Old San Juan.

“They were scared because it was the first time they’ve been through something like that,” said Father Vasquez. “They spent the time praying or near the Eucharist” as winds tore through part of the roof near a chapel in the building at Centro Capuchino. Some later sent him videos of the winds whistling through the streets, images taken from a cracked window in an arched entrance door.

The entrance door to the friary caved in, he said, leaving no path for the friars to make their way to the main street. But even if they could get out to the street, authorities have put a curfew in place, afraid citizens could come in contact with fallen cables and other objects that could pose danger on the ground.

The friars told him of the devastation they could see from inside, he said, including fallen palm trees and blocked roads. A parishioner sent him photos of debris, such as torn and battered traffic lights left behind by Maria’s wrath.

Capuchin Franciscan Father Carlos Reyes, in a Sept. 21 phone interview with Catholic News Service, said he didn’t sleep through the harrowing night he spent listening to Hurricane Maria barrel through San Juan.

“I spent the night praying,” he said, and listening to the radio was the only way to hear what was happening in Puerto Rico and the world. He heard about the earthquake in Mexico and in the middle of his own experience with nature’s wrath, he prayed for the earthquake’s victims.

Water crept in at one point and the friars were doing their best to keep it out of the residence. The only way to live through such an experience is with faith and thinking about safety, he said. Authorities tried to drive the urgent message that Hurricane Maria was no joke and many listened, he said.

“The message was to save life, not the material,” he said. “You can reconstruct structures, but not life.”

Father Reyes, originally from El Salvador, said he has lived through strong earthquakes and their damage sometimes affects a centralized area, but Hurricane Maria tore through an entire island.

As of Sept. 22, at least 15 people were killed in Puerto Rico, and 14 deaths were reported on the island nation of Dominica. Two others were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one on the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged Catholics to respond with prayer and other help “in this time of great need for our brothers and sisters in harm’s way, many of whom have been hit repeatedly by the successive hurricanes.”

In a Sept. 22 statement, he noted the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Maria were visited on Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean “just as we begin to assess the material and emotional damage of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.”

Cardinal DiNardo said: “Casting aside any temptation to despair, and full of hope in the loving providence of God, we pray that our Father may receive unto his loving presence those who have lost their lives, may he comfort the grieving, and may he fortify the courage and resilience of those whose lives have been uprooted by these disasters. May he extend the might of his right hand and bid the sea be quiet and still (Mark 4:39).”

Most of Puerto Rico remained without communication and little information had been gathered about conditions. “Our telecommunications system is partially down,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello told the news agency CNN Sept. 20. “Our energy infrastructure is completely down.”

The Society of Jesus in Puerto Rico posted on a website a message and a photo of a cross bent by the hurricane’s wind, but which is still anchored to a tower at Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola in San Juan, a Jesuit, college-preparatory school that the order operates on the island’s capital city.

“With gratitude, we have learned that the Jesuits, faculty and staff are safe,” said the message from Father Flavio Bravo, Jesuit superior of his order’s Puerto Rico community. “Communication from the island remains limited, so we await news on our school families and members of our parish.”

On the website jesuitscentralsouthern.org, he posted a link for donations to help with recovery efforts, but much like the Capuchins, it’s too early to take in the enormity of damages.

Father Reyes said the damage to Puerto Rico isn’t just material but also psychological for those who lived through the experience of Hurricane Maria and he worries for the most vulnerable in the population.

“This leaves behind a lot of damage,” he told CNS. “But we hope for goodwill … the worries and necessities are great … but we can learn a lot from these experiences, that we have to find the good among the bad. In the middle of all of this, faith strengthens us.”

     

Follow Guidos on Twitter: CNS_Rhina.

       

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