From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Communicator finds homeland altered after Hurricane Georges

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.UMC.ORG>
Date 14 Oct 1998 14:20:49

Oct. 14, 1998	Contact: Joretta Purdue (202)546-8722 Washington

NOTE: Lettie LaFontaine was the communications specialist for the first
team sent into the Caribbean by the United Methodist Committee on Relief
after Hurricane Georges struck. She is public media marketing director
for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, 

A UMNS News Feature
By Lettie LaFontaine*

Arriving in my native Puerto Rico on Sept. 28, I could not believe the
devastation that I saw. Trees, power lines and traffic lights were down.
Many homes had been demolished and others had lost their roofs. Debris
was everywhere.

My heart stopped, especially since my mother still lives on the island,
and we had not communicated since the previous Sunday, Sept. 20, as
Hurricane Georges was approaching. 

It wasn't until Oct. 1, after several days in San Juan and the Dominican
Republic, that I was able to visit my hometown, Ponce. There, I learned
that my mother had endured the storm safely at the home of relatives,
and her own house had suffered only minor damage.

During my weeklong trip, I acted as a translator and also helped gather
data for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) team. I worked
closely with Gordon Knuckey, disaster response field representative for
UMCOR, and Darrell Long, UMCOR Volunteers 
In Mission coordinator. 

At the Puerto Rico Conference office, Bishop Juan Vera-Mendez  told us
the different ways in which the church was helping with relief efforts.

The conference's offices had no electricity or water of their own until
Oct. 10. However, a Catholic student council in the building next door
shared its electricity by means of an extension cord. Most of the time,
we used candles to light the office in which we met and where I took

Hurricane Georges was the worst disaster to hit Puerto Rico since 1928,
when Hurricane San Felipe swept through the island. Georges affected
two-thirds of the population. It destroyed the island's agriculture, and
recovery will take from three months to four years, depending on the
crop (plantains, coffee, bananas, rice). 

The cities and towns that suffered the most damage are in the island's
interior, and include such places as Utuado, Jayuya, Lares and Arecibo.

Restoring utilities is expected to take up to seven months in some

The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico has established seven centers in
different parts of the island. All of them provide psychological
counseling and other services, and serve as distribution points for
supplies to the community.

Hurricane Georges made no distinction among its victims, striking
everyone regardless of faith background or economic status, Bishop
Vera-Mendez noted. Likewise, the Methodist Church provided all of its
services free of charge, without regard for religion or other 

"Our only objective is to serve our brothers and sisters, (and) help to
relieve the pain and suffering they are going through," the bishop said.

One-fourth of Puerto Rico's Methodist churches were affected by the
hurricane, the bishop said. That estimate may increase with the final
assessment, after communications are restored with some areas of the

The Methodist Church has more than 10,500 members and 110 congregations
in Puerto Rico. 

Arecibo, where we have the largest concentration of  Methodists,
suffered extensive damage. More than 200 families lost everything, and
15 of the families were members of El Calvario Methodist Church.  

In Mameyes, Jayuya, where the Methodist Church has a big camp, 200
families lost all their belongings, and some of the older buildings in
the camp also suffered damage. The community was completely isolated by
the hurricane and without water and electricity. From Sept. 21, when the
hurricane entered the island, until Sept. 26, roads were blocked 
due to mudslides, and there was no phone service.

Finally, a week later, some of the road was being cleared, so the bishop
and members of the Puerto Rico Conference headed to Mameyes. When they
arrived, the Methodist pastor, Israel Moreno Rivas, threw his arms
around Vera-Mendez in an emotional embrace, which 
translated into despair and relief at the same time. Moreno Rivas was
carrying on his shoulders the emotional load of the whole community,
which was looking to him for some kind of help and relief.

A group of young adults trained by UMCOR organized an activity to help
children begin getting over the trauma of the disaster. It took place
Oct. 3 at the Methodist Camp in Mameyes. The workers took clowns, games,
toys, food, and most of all their love and 
genuine care for those children who have lost everything and were now
living in a school that was being used as a shelter.

UMCOR representative Knuckey helped the bishop and his staff outline an
action plan. He also helped them see the advantages of a community-based
interfaith recovery group, and put them in touch with key people in
other government and non-profit organizations, such 
as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Caribbean representative
and American Red Cross workers.

Knuckey was instrumental in helping  the church make the necessary
contacts to offer its three camp as kitchens to feed people in the
communities of Arecibo; Mameyes; and Guardarraya, Patillas. 
In the interior, we visited Casa Betsan, a home for 22 elderly and
handicapped people. Already in an isolated area, the home had no phone,
water or electricity. A mudslide had buckled the laundry door, and mud
destroyed the two washing machines and one dryer that 
served the operation. The center's director and a staff member had
worked for 32 consecutive hours and had been doing laundry by hand
several times a day. Drying was difficult, since rain had continued
after the hurricane. As soon as we returned to San Juan, 
Knuckey got on the phone to arrange delivery of two commercial washing
machines and a dryer, along with a generator big enough to power them.  

The Puerto Rico Conference leaders commended UMCOR for its support.
Reacting quickly to the disaster would have been difficult without the
agency's swift response, consulting services and guidance, conference
officials said. 

They added that UMCOR staff helped and empowered them in different ways,
rather than trying to taking over the process.
United Methodist News Service
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