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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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Puerto Rico archbishop likes bill that helps island’s financial stability

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Puerto Rico got the legislation it had sought for months when the U.S. Senate adopted a bill that would allow the island’s political and financial leaders to restructure billions of dollars in debt and avoid further defaulting on loan payments.

U.S. President Barack Obama signs into law the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act in Washington June 30. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama signs into law the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act in Washington June 30. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

Voting June 29, the Senate passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, PROMESA, 68-30. The House passed PROMESA June 9, 297-127. President Barack Obama has signed the bill into law. The measure calls for establishing a federal oversight board to manage restructuring of the island’s $72 billion debt.

Archbishop Robert Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, Puerto Rico, welcomed the bill’s passage, saying it will allow the island nation to restructure its debt in an orderly fashion and pre-empts lawsuits from creditors seeking repayment of outstanding loans.

With cascading defaults, “much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure would have begun to collapse. The government, for example, would have run out of money to pay for police, firefighters, public schools, municipal hospitals,” Archbishop Gonzalez told Catholic News Service in an email.

He said that the establishment of an oversight board does not automatically assure that the debt restructuring process “will be fair.” He pledged that the Catholic Church would “continue to be a voice on behalf of the most vulnerable and poor who are the most impacted by austerity measures.”

The archbishop called for the church also to be a voice encouraging good government, “free of corruption, serving the common good” while promoting economic development and justice for all Puerto Ricans.

Advocacy groups, led by Jubilee USA, for months urged Congress to adopt restructuring legislation.

“This legislation is absolutely essential because we can see no economic growth or reduction in child poverty until the debt is restructured,” explained Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA.

He credited the faith community for getting behind the bill to ensure its passage.

“This legislation would not have passed if not for the leadership of the Catholic Church and the leadership of other Christian communities,” he said. “In an election year, it was the religious community that got the issue heard in Congress. We would have not gotten the protection that put Puerto Rican people first and the debt second.”

Puerto Rican government, nongovernmental and religious leaders began to press Congress to secure a restructuring plan after Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said in mid-2015 that the island’s debt had become unpayable.

Archbishop Gonzalez was among the most vocal proponents of debt restructuring legislation.

In an op-ed in The Hill newspaper June 7, Archbishop Gonzalez wrote that the measure would give “Puerto Rico breathing space so the payment of pensions and social services are made first, before debt payments. The legislation stops exploitative behavior of so-called vulture funds and has a process to bring our debt back to sustainable levels.”

He met with members of Congress and White House staff in September seeking support for a deal that would have saved the island from implementing deeper austerity measures than had already been enacted in essential safety and public health programs for Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million residents.

The crisis began as Puerto Rico endured financial hardships that worsened during the economic recession that began in 2008. In the meantime, the island’s debt was purchased from investors by hedge funds for pennies on the dollar, which then demanded payment in full on the public bonds they hold. Archbishop Gonzalez called such actions immoral and a prime example of the “profit-at-any-cost” form of capitalism decried by Pope Francis.

As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is in a unique situation. It is not governed by the same U.S. bankruptcy laws that pertain to state and local governments and because it is not an independent nation, in cannot approach the International Monetary Fund for assistance.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the island’s unemployment at 11.7 percent in May, down from the peak of 17 percent in May 2010. The island is facing a drain of young adults as thousands make their way for employment to the U.S. mainland. By comparison, average unemployment for May, but reported in June, for the mainland was at 4.7 percent.

 

Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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