South Carolina team first of many to help hurricane-battered island begin recovery through UMCOR, Home Depot, Methodist Church of Puerto Rico partnership
By Jessica Brodie
HATILLO, Puerto Rico—Driving through San Juan and into the mountains of northern Puerto Rico, it’s hard to tell what is hurricane damage versus storm-exposed poverty.
Two-story concrete houses and mural-painted businesses stand strong alongside half-tattered rubble and buildings with blue-tarp roofs. Still others are just a crumpled shell of iron bars and decay. Litter-strewn patches of grass share space with grazing cows, horses and goats; a giant crushed-metal structure fills the next field over.
And everywhere you look, amid the wreckage and the rebuild, Puerto Rican flags wave proudly. Almost six months after the island was hit by a double-whammy of storms—Hurricane Irma Sept. 6-7, then Hurricane Maria Sept. 20—the flags represent a symbol of strength, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. Even as many are still without electricity. Even as stores stay shuttered and jobs remain scarce.
“Puerto Rico Se Levanta,” the bumper stickers read—Puerto Rico Rises Up.
It is here that a group of 10 United Methodists from South Carolina spent one week recently as the first rebuild and construction team to utilize materials through a partnership with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico and Home Depot. The South Carolina team—which comprised a pastor and nine laity including the South Carolina Conference’s disaster response coordinator and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission’s Early Response Team coordinator—spent time in Arecibo and Hatillo doing construction on four houses and a Methodist camp Feb. 24 to March 3. Three of the four houses became livable again because of their efforts.
“This team represented the best of the South Carolina annual conference, not in terms of who we were, but in terms of how we worked and how we loved,” said team leader Nate Gibson, of Mount Horeb UMC in Lexington, South Carolina. “More than any roof we installed or house we painted, we represented hope and a reminder that God, and His people, are the foundation upon which Puerto Rico will rise again.”
Theodore Warnock, UMCOR’s missionary of special projects, said he helped unload a truck of materials on Saturday and, by Monday, the South Carolina team was using them to put a roof on a house.
“There was no delay in making a home habitable for living,” Warnock said. “It warms your heart knowing what you’re doing is being able to move a family back in. Just—wow.”
Methodist hurricane, Methodist recovery
Ruben Velez, director of logistics for the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico, said the island is finally transitioning from response to recovery and rebuild. While the South Carolina team was the first to come under the church/UMCOR/Home Depot partnership, at least 40 volunteer work teams are in the queue, and Velez and his team are working to try to link them with appropriate home sites.
“We are learning along the way. We don’t see ourselves as people that know everything. We need everything, and we welcome everything,” Velez said, from materials to volunteers to money. While UMCOR has been extremely generous, with 10-plus years or more of work ahead of them, he knows it won’t be enough.
But it’s a start, and Velez said they were also fortunate to have been hit by what he’s jokingly dubbed “a Methodist hurricane,” as Maria came in from the southeast, near a Methodist camp in Patillas, cut diagonally through the island near another Methodist camp, and exited in the northwest, near the Methodist camp in Arecibo. A strong Methodist presence runs throughout the path of the storm, something Velez hopes will guide their recovery.
Their recovery strategy follows much the same path, using local churches to help recognize the damage with case managers spiraling out from there, going house by house, place by place. They are starting near the two coastal camps and hope to head into the center of the island in a few weeks.
Hope, of course, is the operative word—they will do what they can as they can, staying flexible and grateful all the way, thankful both for God’s providence and for the help they are receiving.
“I am privileged to be here,” Velez said, hugging one homeowner, then turning to talk shop with a construction team, switching from English to Spanish and back again. “You see that lady’s face? You see the neighbor’s smile? We don’t see this kind of support and love. This is God’s love making itself flesh and blood again. This is Emanuel—God with us.”
Part of God’s hands to help
Indeed, the people say they see God throughout the storm and the way the island has responded.
The Rev. Sergio Valentin, pastor of Iglesia Metodista El Calvario, the South Carolina team’s host church, has worked tirelessly to helped identify home sites. The congregation is focusing on helping the unchurched community first, putting church and congregation needs last. And as they and so many others have stepped up to help, Valentin says he’s seen God’s hands with Puerto Rico.
“The experience has been an inspiration. Even people who don’t know us have come here to help us, all part of God’s hands to help here on earth,” Valentin said, raising his eyes to the steeple standing high above his circa-1903 church. “Dios bendiga (God’s blessing).”
For the homeowners, the blessing—and the rising up—cannot happen soon enough. One Hatillo mother of two, Yenitza, lost everything she owned between Irma and Maria. Her house was the first place the South Carolina team worked when they arrived.
“Destroida,” she said, gesturing to the roofless second story above her head—destroyed. Only the bathroom and part of one wall are still standing, the rest of her belongings piled in a heap by the roadside. One of her daughter’s shoes pokes out beneath a rusted sheet of metal roofing and a rotted, waterlogged length of plywood. She’s getting government funds to rebuild her house once it’s cleared out; the South Carolina team gutted the structure in preparation.
Another Hatillo homeowner, Ada Villanueva Cadelaria, has had to bring her two children to live next door with her mother since Maria hit. Thanks to the South Carolina team’s efforts, she not only has a new metal roof over her small house but also fresh paint and wood trim, and by the time they left was gathering furniture to move back home.
She can barely express how she feels about the assistance she received.
“Es genial,” she says simply, staring at the brightly painted one-story structure, chickens and their chicks darting across the path at her feet as she gropes for the words—it feels great.
‘We will move forward’
Gibson said he and his South Carolina team were honored to be one of the first non-governmental groups to come to the island to help rebuild—and to help Puerto Rico se levanta.
“It was humbling to be so early into the rebuilding effort and see genuine hope from everybody—those receiving our assistance and those who just saw us there—because it gave flesh to the se levanta slogan they have adopted, and you could tell it gave them hope that they weren’t going to have to rise again by themselves,” Gibson said.
Angel de Jesus, 28, said between the shortage of food, water, gasoline, electricity and basic communication, everyone on the island has suffered, even if you were lucky enough not to experience damage at your own home. But de Jesus said the beautiful part has been watching how the people have come together to help each other—and now getting the opportunity to see people come from far away to help, too.
“It’s going to be a long, long time to rebuild—block by block, step by step, maybe many years, but the help is welcome,” de Jesus said. “We feel relieved you are here. God brings the help.”
Nicole Mendéz, 18, also said she is grateful for the teams beginning to travel to Puerto Rico to assist in the rebuild and recovery effort. Her family had some scary times throughout the past few months, particularly right after the storm; her 22-year-old sister is diabetic, and without power, they had to rely on a generator to refrigerate her insulin, something difficult given the scarcity of gasoline.
But Mendéz said she felt God’s presence throughout, and she still feels it now, watching and helping as others join in to help Puerto Rico rise again.
“People were desperate, you couldn’t find things you needed, my mom would just wake up and listen to radio and cry, but I felt very calm. Then and now, I felt reassured by God. We are going to survive somehow. Somehow, there is life; there is hope.”
Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, Mendéz said, “We will move forward.”
That is what the South Carolina team, and the teams now coming on their heels, are hoping to do: add their hands to the hands of their Puerto Rican brothers and sisters, all part of God’s holy and glorious service-driven love after the storm, moving the people forward and into a brighter tomorrow one step at a time.
Teams are needed now to help in Puerto Rico. To register a team to help on the island, or to learn more about supporting UMCOR’s work with Home Depot and the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico, visit www.umcor.org.
View photos (by Matt Brodie) of the team’s mission effort here: