Jim Alvarez writes:
On September 20, Hurricane Maria dealt PR a devastating blow. Maria was a category 5
hurricane that enveloped the entire island as the eye traveled across the center of the island.
Maria had sustained winds over 150 mph with reported gusts over 200 mph and had 30 inches
of rainfall in 24 hours. The entire island was left without electricity as the power grid was wiped
out. Cell communication was almost non-existent as only some of those in the capital city were
able to access a cell signal. Running water was severely compromised. Impassable roads make it
impossible to deliver food and water to communities across the island. Two weeks later my
sister Rose and I traveled to Puerto Rico on behalf of MDS and MHS to assess medical and social
When we first arrived on the island our first impression was of a tropical island turned desert.
Areas that used to be green were now brown; trees that used to have thick foliage now stood
bare against the landscape – their leaves gone and the bark sandblasted off. The roads were
cleared off in San Juan, but there were many fallen trees along the side of the roads, in the
fields, and on the hills. As we made our way from the city of San Juan to the mountain town of
Aibonito, the devastation was even more evident. Driving up the winding roads it felt like we
were in a different country. Trees were down everywhere, homes were without roofs; walls
and fences were destroyed; electric poles were either down; leaning over, sheared off, or
hanging by wires. Electric wires were down everywhere.
Once we arrived in Aibonito we began to take stock of the situation: no one had power; some
people had generators that they ran several hours a day (but fuel was very expensive); no one
had cell or land phone use and there was no internet service; some homes had running water,
but most did not; clothes were being washed by hand; since gasoline supplies were low and it
was being rationed, long lines had formed; grocery stores had some bare shelves but basic food
items seemed to be available; bottled water was very hard to come by; mail service to Aibonito
was stopped but resumed after 2 weeks.
We saw many examples of people helping each other. The mayor of Aibonito had a very
efficient cleanup plan in place that allowed access to and from town faster than many other
towns. The churches and civic groups in Aibonito have been working together with a Catholic
church-based “pastoral-social” center that is providing hot lunches to 150-175 persons per day
as well as running a food bank, a bazaar, and offering emotional/psychological support to those
who come to their center. They have also been sending people out to do home visits with
“shut-ins” to make sure they are okay. The Mennonite Church in Aibonito was providing water
to anyone in the community who needed it.
We visited with Mennonite pastors, hospital administrators, representatives from several
different schools and universities, the administrator of the pastoral-social center, a doctor, the
MDS coordinator, and others from several communities. It is clear that the needs are great. The
more pressing needs are immediate basic needs: electricity, water, food, shelter, and
communication. Tarps and generators are still needed to protect homes and to provide power
to those who need it to refrigerate medications like insulin and for those who need
supplemental oxygen. One of the most important needs is emotional support. The hurricane
itself was terrifying with over 30 hours of loud blowing winds. The people are left with the
heaviness of a devastated landscape, daily life that is very difficult, job loss for many, the fear of
increased crime, and the knowledge that it may be months before electric and other services
are restored. Many are unable to sleep due to anxiety. There is currently an exodus from the
island of many who feel hopeless. The current hardships have driven many of the older
generation to seek shelter with family in the U.S.
Besides material support, when asked what else could help, someone said “acompañamiento”-
knowing that people are standing with us. They suggested letters of encouragement, small care
packages for children, group meetings/workshops, etc.
There are many ways to support the recovery effort in Puerto Rico. We suggest the following:
– Donate to MDS
– Donate to Mennonite Health Services (MHS)
– Donate directly to Academia Menonita Betania
– Join and MDS team
Thanks to all for your prayers and concern,
Jim, Diane, Sara and Corine Alvarez