It’s taken me a week to wrap my head around everything that we saw while in Puerto Rico. This past month has been an emotional overload, which has just resulted in so much physical and mental exhaustion. Being face to face with the destruction of Maria caused numbness, disbelief, hope, awe, sadness, confusion… and even in the middle of it all, a sense of stillness.
Thank you to friends, family and strangers who donated money or supplies to take to Puerto Rico. I have a list, and you are all named individually, and you will all be receiving your due letters of thankfulness.
Every time I’ve flown to Puerto Rico, the plane has been full of mostly Puerto Ricans, returning home from vacation or visiting family, or on their way to visit their family after moving to the mainland. The atmosphere is vibrant and happy with lots of strangers turned chatty neighbors.
Not this time.
There were 42 people on this flight, and only a few of them Puerto Rican. We sat next to a young father named Christian who was going to Puerto Rico to help his mother through a heart surgery. They wanted to get her out of Puerto Rico for the surgery but the doctors said they didn’t have enough time. So, in very undesirable conditions, she would be undergoing open heart surgery. He left behind his wife who was 5 weeks away from giving birth to their second child.
As we flew closer to Puerto Rico, the first thing we saw from the plane was the debris in the ocean. It looked as though there were hundreds of small boats off the shore, causing white caps and wake, but it was not. It was debris from the hurricane, both natural and manmade. The northern shoreline, normally a beautiful turquoise blue, was brown. Muddy. Mud was everywhere like a dirty river. And then – the sky was even different. As we were descending for landing just after 2pm, the island was yellow. No blue skies reflecting from the beautiful blue waters; no lush green mountains or palm fronds. Yellow. Brown. And Mud.
But there was one blue to be seen everywhere – the blue tarp roofs. Easily, one in every ten houses had a bright blue tarp as a temporary roof in San Juan. They looked like Lego pieces put together in a toy town, randomly placed about. To know that just a week or two ago, each of those blue tarp houses was open and exposed made me think about what that would have looked like upon landing, and to hope that the people who lived there were not in the homes when their roofs were torn off.
It was hard to look at everything but at the same time see nothing because there was so much to look at. My eyes came across a flat of land next to a pond, where cars were thrown around like they were Matchbox cars a toddler got tired of… upside down, sideways, on top of each other.
And then we landed. Puerto Rican flights *always* end with applause after a safe landing. This flight was quiet, somber and not a clap to be heard. At this point I was choking back tears and trying not to cry in front of everyone. I’m not sure why I still do that sometimes, but I tried to hold it together.
When we exited the airplane, the gates were crowded with people – whole families, pets included - sitting on the floor, leaning against the walls, and everywhere they could sit and wait for their flight. The baggage claim was nearly empty as people who came in were sparse, but, the line at the lost luggage office for American Airlines was out the door and down the hallway. While I won’t get in to it too much (at least right now), we also had a bag not arrive that was initially accepted yet later refused by Frontier in Atlanta. I won’t be flying with Frontier again for many reasons. And please note: all of my problems came from Atlanta, not San Juan. If we’re not given the resolution we were promised, maybe you’ll hear more about it.
The car rental company was running off of a generator and had to do the entire rental process by hand. There was no internet or cell phone signal available, so they were basically operating off of the honor system – they didn’t broadcast that, but seeing that there was no way to run my credit card for the rental before I drove off with the car made it pretty clear. The process from getting off the plane, getting our bags, filing a claim for our lost bag, waiting on the shuttle to the rental (with no phone service, there was no way to contact them or they us), then waiting for the car to be processed by hand, took about 3 hours. At that point there was no chance we’d be able to drive up the mountain before the sun set, so most of what we would see would be the next day. We went ahead and stopped at the Home Depot in San Juan since we knew there’d be no other chance to buy a chainsaw. There were tarps for sale in excess of $100 each, chain saws for over $200, and not a drop of water for sale. The restaurants and stores nearby were closed with exception of a McDonalds. We went to the McDonalds, and there were signs saying that no drinks were available. The bathrooms were also closed. We decided against it and headed up the mountain.
After getting up the mountain and turning on to 722, the first thing I could see with our headlights was that the lechonera (BBQ restaurant) not half a mile from the Maderas’ home was destroyed. Mostly in a state of “wow…” I was not ready to see what we saw as we turned on to the Maderas’ road. The first house on the left, destroyed. Second house on the left, destroyed. Third house on the left… destroyed. Next house on the right, destroyed. Then, going down the hill to where you can see the Maderas’ house, I saw something unexpected. From pictures that I had previously viewed, it looked as though the Maderas’ neighbors up the road were spared by the hurricane, but that was not the case. The part of their house that was visible from the picture was the only part of their house still standing. The house was destroyed. At this point, I’m a blubbering mess.
Then Miguel and Ludy come out of their house with flashlights. Just like that first phone call, I’m not sure I said anything while I was crying on them. I didn’t even introduce them to Paige and Cody because it was all so overwhelming. After coming inside, Ludy turned off the generator and brought it inside so we could hear each other. They talked about what they had been through in the previous month and talked about what it was like to experience the hurricane. They said that their house shook and it sounded like heavy machinery was operating outside. The wind and the rain blew in through their windows and peeled the paint off of their walls from the inside. The rain came in through the windows in their closet and soaked their clothes. Occasionally, Ludy would leave their bedroom to look out of the window. Ludy’s neighbors down the road were in their house when the roof was blown off, and they had to run to their father’s house right next to it. They describe how they’re making do without running water, having run out of rain water, and not having power but fortunate to have a generator. A few years ago, we bought Ludy a gas stove after her old stove quit working. It was a way to say thank you to her for all of the hundreds of plates of food she had served to us over the years. It was that gas stove that allowed her to be able to cook meals without having power.
After the Maderas went to bed, we decided we needed to sort and bag the donations so they would be ready for the next day. We were able to provide ten families with a minimum of the following items, thanks to your donations of money and supplies: water purification filter, first aid kit, bottle of multivitamins, 20 water purification tablets, 25 packets of Tylenol, 25 packets of Ibuprofen, 60 bug repellent patches, 32 tampons, 64 maxipads, 4-5 MREs plus chicken, tuna, crackers, sausages, raisins and lentil casserole, 120 sanitizing hand wipes, 1 solar powered light, 10 prepasted toothbrushes, 8 packs of disposable wisps, 1 bath towel, 2 chamois towels, and 3 packs of baby wipes. We had separate bags of toothbrushes, soaps, deodorants, wipes and medicine for the senior citizen center, as well as extra MREs, feminine supplies and tarps with zip ties for those who needed them.
In Puerto Rico, the sun rises around between 6am-7am year round, and sets closer to 7pm. There is no daylight savings time. When we “fall back,” we’ll be an hour behind Puerto Rico. When we “spring ahead” next Spring, we’ll be back on the same time zone. Ludy was up early, just like she always is, and boiling some water to make coffee. Even though they are going day by day with what they have to eat or drink, Ludy has the kind of heart and soul where she HAD to share with us. I knew that there was little to nothing I could do to say no so she could keep what she had. She made us each a cup of coffee and boiled us some hot dogs for breakfast. She joked that it was an American breakfast for her American family. J
Our first task of the day was to look at the church. The city had come to clear the road to get to Miguel and Ludy’s house, but not past their neighbor’s. As soon as you turn past their neighbor’s house, there was an obstacle of trees down to climb over. Past that, it’s open for a few feet, and once you make the next turn, more trees. All of the smaller, thinner pine trees were down. Their needles had already died and made a thick blanket over the road, but you could still see the road. Then, after the pine trees came the big trees and the mud. Trees had to be climbed under and over, and the road was completely invisible under all of the mud and brush. Intertwined and tangled with the branches were the power lines, and the broken water pipes. Trees had completely blocked the steps to the church entrance, and the sign was mangled and destroyed. The baptismal avoided a landslide but a wall to a storage area was at the bottom of the hillside. The cement walls that hold trash pickup at the top of the mountain had moved about 6 feet and was about one foot away from sliding completely down the mountain in to the church.
On the second floor, the wind blew the windows out from inside and sent them down the mountain. On the first floor, the wind blew the door to the Sunday School room and kitchen inside the building, leaving gaping holes where doors should be. In the kitchen there was standing water sitting in the pantry, a size about 10’x15’ and water about 8” deep. The corner of the roof looked like someone fidgeted with it, trying to peel it up subconsciously but never committed to pulling it all the way off. The roof that did come up had more roof underneath it, which spared the second floor from being completely exposed to the elements. The building was sturdy enough for us to enter, although parts of the floor next to where the window was blown out did not seem sturdy or safe, as the floor bent beneath us in that area. The doors and windows need replaced. Nearly all of the screens need replaced. Some of the flooring needs replaced. It is likely that all of the electrical and plumbing components need work, although I wouldn’t know how to speak to either of those things, other than seeing that the water lines were cracked and spewed along the mountainside… that certainly can’t be good. Even if Aibonito gets its water back, the church won’t have water to clean it. Even if the power is restored, it’s likely that the lines in the church were so messed up that they’ll need rerun.
Despite all of that, I was relieved that the most of the inside of the building was OK. Cleaning the building and getting it back to a state where people can meet, much less sleep, is going to be a huge undertaking. I honestly don’t know if it will be ready for us to occupy come this summer. It certainly won’t be available as a place to stay while working on it simultaneously. But a massive cleaning project is much preferred to a massive rebuilding project.
Three things stuck out to us as we were looking through the inside of the building. A single JESUS necklace lay on the table in the middle of the room. Pastor Miguel’s bible stayed on his pulpit. The cross on the outside of the building stayed hung, not even tilted or crooked.
The cross in the ground next to the entrance was not as fortunate, but still beautiful despite being broken.
Before leaving, Cody used a machete to cut down as much as he could, and we cleared the pathway to make it a little bit easier to get by. We threw what we could down the mountain and broke off branches that had already long been dead. To see all of the trees that look like our trees in the winter, and to know that most of them are dead already made me sad for what used to be so lush and green.
Miguel and Ludy had not made it inside the church building yet due to its inaccessibility, so we came back to the house with items we could salvage, like bleach, bug spray and sun screen, as well as pictures to show them. We brought back Miguel’s communion cup and anointing oil with his Bible, and presented them to him.
Ludy let us know that their son Jafet was coming by later in the afternoon with another chain saw, so we decided that we would go ahead to San Luis to check on the people we minister to and bring relief supplies. We couldn’t get in to San Luis before we had to stop. A family was at their house, reduced to rubble, looking through their possessions and deciding what was worth taking or leaving. We pulled over and gave them a supply kit and prayed with them. They told us that they were not going to try to repair it, but that they were hoping to rebuild after everything settles down. They were staying with a family member in their home for the time being.
Coming in to town, we drove past the senior citizen center and to my joy, it was OPEN! There were people on the front porch and they had lights on. We pulled over and grabbed our extra supplies for them. When we came in I went to the director’s office door and she wasn’t in there. So we went straight into the cafeteria and scanned the room. I saw her – sitting with residents, going through a questionnaire. I came up from behind her and rubbed her back. She turned around and when she saw us she jumped up and hugged me. I’m not sure how it’s happened, but I don’t even know this woman’s name! I just know she is the director of activities and every year she helps us come and give manicures and pedicures to the residents. She had tears in her eyes and I could feel in her embrace how weary she was, but determined to get through her circumstances. We gave her the supplies we had, and I said through tears that I wished we had more, but that we’d be back. It was a quick visit because we knew we had to get in to San Luis, but I was so grateful to see them there. There was a woman sitting at a table who recognized us and blew us a kiss. Paige told me that one woman smiled at her and made the motion of painting nails, hopeful we were there to treat them. I wish I would have seen that but it made me smile to know it.
I had wanted to first check on Sandra and Maydelin, two women we had specifically helped multiple times over the years, but again we had to stop. A woman was standing in front of her house where the roof was gone and no tarp had been placed. We had a dozen tarps and zip ties so we decided to pull over. Her entire house was missing the roof with the exception of a small portion in the back, maybe just 5’x5’. She said that she stayed there at night so she wasn’t exposed. We gave her the tarps and the zip ties as well as a supply kit. Her neighbor came over to discuss how they could get the tarps put up and we gave him a supply kit as well. We prayed with them and headed back out.
Driving through San Luis, we saw wooden houses that were not destroyed, which was a relief! If a house was destroyed, it was definitely wooden. With the flooding they received, people living in cement homes still had all of their possessions ruined. If you remember driving through the neighborhoods in the Midlands that were flooded in 2015, seeing the contents of their homes piled on the side of the road – this was the same.
Coming down the road, looking for Sandra’s house, I can see the roof! I am at first excited that she was spared and maybe she’ll be there… until we got closer. The roof that we could see, just like Miguel’s neighbor’s house, was only there for half of the house. The other half of the house was gone, and the open part of her house was boarded up with plywood. I have stood in this house several times and prayed with Sandra. Students and adults have all met Sandra and gone in her home to pray with her. Her house was already just the size of a garage, and now it was half gone. Her belongings, and the half of her house that was destroyed, was piled high on the sidewalk in front of her house. Her neighbors were home and outside but I was too upset to attempt to talk to them. We decided to go check on Maydelin and maybe by the time we came back through I wouldn’t be crying.
I called for Maydelin twice at her home, which was cement and undamaged, and almost thought she wasn’t there, but then she came to the door! She smiled brightly and hugged me and I introduced her to Paige and Cody. When we first met Maydelin several years ago, she was at the beginning of a very difficult period in her life. She had no food in her home and had just had to send her daughter away to stay with her grandmother so she could be well taken care of. We bought her groceries and prayed with her and have checked on her every year since then. She was so appreciative of the items we brought her – especially the solar light! She took me by the hand and asked if we had a supply kit for her elderly neighbor. So we went next door as she called for her to come outside and gave her a kit, too. The light was another big hit. We prayed with them and let them know they were not forgotten.
Coming back through the neighborhood, we stopped to talk to Sandra’s neighbors. They said that she was not in her house when Maria hit, and that she comes by the house most afternoons to check on it and collect items. They said she was staying with a family member in town. I was so glad to hear that she wasn’t gone, and I hoped, if only selfishly, that I’d get to see her again one day. We gave a supply kit to her neighbors and prayed with them. They were a group of girls, very bored that school was out, sitting outside and talking. They were so happy to see us and prayed with us.
Across the street, two women and a man were cleaning the outside of their house. Maria had torn the paint off of their cement house and they were scraping off the chips that were hanging. The women were a mother and a daughter. The house we were at was the mother’s and the daughter lived next door. They asked us if we would come inside to talk and pray with them and we agreed. The daughter spoke English so Paige was able to explain everything that we brought for them. Again, they were thrilled with the solar powered light! They cried with us, telling us how horrible and terrifying it was. The daughter told us how she had fallen asleep in her house and meant to be with her mother, age 70. But when the hurricane made water fill up their home, it woke her up from the floor and by then it was too late to leave her house and go next door. She had to wait hours until the eye came and then she could run to her mom’s house next door and make sure she was OK. Then they embraced the rest of the hurricane together. They had tears in their eyes as they talked about it. The daughter said that she felt forgotten, because we were the only ones who had come to check on them or offer aid since the hurricane hit. At that point it had been 33 days. They hugged us, prayed with us, and asked to take our picture so they could show their friends and family how they’d been blessed.
The next house up an elderly man was trying to clean his house. He also invited us in to pray and his fridge was open, airing out. His house smelled like rotten fish. He had all of his non-perishable food spread out on his small kitchen table, and you could see an air mattress on the floor. His mattress was soaked by the hurricane and he had to get rid of it. He told us how he had made do with the small amount of food on his table – not even enough to fill a small pantry. He prayed with us and thanked us.
As we were leaving his house, the mother/daughter had asked us if we could visit their neighbor behind them. She came out and we drove to their house just around the corner. We had prayed for them in the past when I brought students. Her mother had been ill. They remembered me and hugged me. Their house had also been partially destroyed and the part that they were living in was just big enough for a sofa and an air mattress. They tried to save their cats from the hurricane and there were several in this small area that couldn’t be bigger than a large walk-in closet. It smelled heavily of cats. They were very thankful for the supply kit and prayed with us. Then they called their neighbor to come outside so we could pray with them as well.
At this point, we had run out of supply kits. So we headed back to the Maderas’ house and gave them our leftover MREs and feminine supplies to give to any church members who needed them. While we were waiting for Jafet, we learned that Miguel’s truck wasn’t working. Cody happens to know car mechanics and spent some time working on it. He was able to determine what was wrong and told the Maderas if they didn’t need it, he could come back and fix it. Jafet came and brought the chain saw oil we needed for the chain saw and made sure they were running. Cody took the chain saw to the church road and started clearing out as much as he could. It was a tricky task because of the way the trees were stacked on each other, and in and around the mud. Paige and I followed behind and removed the cut off branches and trunks. What used to be an obstacle course with climbing, ducking, pushing, prodding and lots of balancing acts, was now a relatively easy walk. There were still things to step over and on, but nothing that required any great amount of agility.
We spent the night with the Maderas, talking about what was next. We need to first work on clearing the landslides and the trees. A massive cleaning effort will be needed at the church. The needs in the community are exactly the same – home repair and reconstruction. Basic needs are unmet. Prayer, love, support, encouragement and simply letting people know they are not forgotten are needed acts of kindness. A hot meal would be an excellent way to share God’s love – and definitely the cup of cold water if the water is still out.
The Maderas will be coming here in November for a couple of weeks. I know Miguel can’t wait to take a shower! Every time I go to Puerto Rico and come home there are things I am grateful for back at home. This time that list became so much larger. I didn’t get to take a shower for three days. THREE DAYS. That’s it, compared to so many who have been waiting for one for over a month. When I took my shower I wept for those who all around the world couldn’t have what I was experiencing. How often do we take for granted the things we have? I imagine daily.
Please pray how you can be involved in our next mission to clear the road, clean the church and serve the community. Our work was never going to be done in Puerto Rico even before Maria hit. And now there is work for everyone to do, for many, many years to come. Each time I prayed with people in the community, I made sure to say that JESUS was the only one who offers any hope to us in this life. Hope and comfort and eternal life comes through no one but Jesus – not Maria – and I prayed for everyone to find that in Him and Him alone. Perhaps it took a hurricane named Maria to get the attention of the lost to stop praying to Santa Maria, and start a relationship with Jesus Christ. I hope and pray in Jesus’ name.