From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Puerto Rico Presbyterians Estimate Hurricane Damage at $3 Million

Date 28 Oct 1998 20:15:26

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    Puerto Rico Presbyterians Estimate Hurricane 
    Damage at $3 Million 
    by Alexa Smith 
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -Six weeks after Hurricane Georges saturated the Caribbean 
with rain and wind, Presbyterians in Puerto Rico are reporting more than 
$2.7 million in damage to personal and church property there so far. 
    "We're going up close to $3 million - and that's just Presbyterian 
families and pastors," said the Rev. Harry F. Del Valle, executive of the 
nearly 10,000-member Synod of Puerto Rico.  "When you go to the population 
in general, this is the worst disaster of the whole century in Puerto Rico. 
    "It is worse than San Felipe in 1928, worse than San Seriaco in 1932," 
said Del Valle, drawing on old-timers' memories of the century's 
record-breaking storms.  "The problem with this storm was ... the slow 
speed of this hurricane, the tornadoes [inside it], plus the water.  There 
are towns that got 32 inches of rain in hours.  And everything caused 
    Locals estimate that more than 12 percent of the population is still 
without electricity. Some areas are still too washed out from the storm to 
easily access, but statistics are filtering into the synod office in 
Mayaguez, a city on the western edge of the island that is closest to the 
equally hard hit Dominican Republic. 
    A list issued by the Synod Oct. 27 shows no Presbyterian churches 
destroyed, but several reporting minor to moderate water and wind damage. 
The real losses were to members' personal property. 
      In the town of Maricao, in the island's central mountains, 77 percent 
of all the houses and 93 percent of the crops were destroyed by Georges. Of 
the 59 families in the Presbyterian church in Maricao, 39 lost their homes, 
Del Valle said.  The list goes on: in Rincon, there is damage totalling 
$105,000 for the church building and members' residences; in El Guacio, 
where 22 families either lost everything or most everything, the estimate 
is $171,525; in Valle Hermoso, where 15 families lost property and other 
personal belongings, the tally is $17,954; four churches in Mayaguez report 
$216,000 in damages among their families. 
    The single-spaced list goes on for two-and-one-half pages.  It includes 
$232,800 in damages to the campus of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto 
Rico and $250,000 more to the Campamento El Guacio, a church conference 
center.  Posada de Amor - a shelter for homeless children - is reporting 
$20,000 in damage to its structure. 
    "We still don't know the full extent of the problems," said 
Presbyterian Bob Arnold of Church World Service (CWS), the relief arm of 
the National Council of Churches in New York City. The agency has already 
sent more than $100,000-worth of goods to Puerto Rico, including bed 
sheets, flashlights, portable generators, kerosene lanterns, baby kits and 
underwear.  "It's a mess.  I guess there's about 90,000 houses affected - 
either destroyed or with major damage.  So that's the rebuilding task that 
churches are going to have to get involved in [with volunteers]. 
    "The infrastructure is severely compromised ... rebuilding is going to 
take some time," said Arnold. Getting supplies - like food - into areas 
with missing bridges or without refrigeration presents another whole set of 
problems for relief workers, he explained.  "This is the closest thing I've 
seen to what might be called a catastrophic disaster.  It affects a wide 
area and a lot of people. 
    "Though there were not a lot of deaths, in terms of the destruction, it 
was a wide area." 
    In fact, 7,000 people are still living in shelters in Puerto Rico, more 
than 100 of those at a Presbyterian camp near San Sebastian.  While 
government figures say that 88 percent of the population now has 
electricity and another 85 percent has water, relief workers say those 
figures seem too high. According to the Rev. Francisco Velazquez of 
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Disaster Assistance, people in more isolated 
areas are clamoring for ice to refrigerate medicines and other perishables. 
      "For four weeks there was no water," said Velazquez of his parish in 
the town of Cavorojo. He estimates that 99 percent of the town's population 
still has no electricity. But people are saying, "As long as there is 
water, we don't mind going without electricity." 
    Unlike Hugo and some other more recent hurricanes, Georges is 
impacting the lives of even those who survived the storm with water and 
electricity and an intact residence.  Supermarket shelves are emptier, 
since imports are down, affected by damage to the island's port. 
Transportation inside the island is also more complicated. Police officers 
stand in some major intersections directing traffic, since some signals are 
still non-functional.  Power companies are increasingly reporting injuries 
to overtired repair crews, Velazquez said.  "Driving at night is terrible," 
said General Assembly Council member the Rev. Aurelio Garcia, describing 
how working traffic signals are slowly being repaired in metropolitan San 
Juan.  "Getting into intersections [can be] terrifying ... 
    "Though San Juan was relatively unscathed," he said, driving there is 
"just sheer madness." 
    On a relief visit to heavily damaged Maricao, the Rev. Rafael Riquellme 
(who is also a clinical psychologist) noticed the emotional - as well as 
material - devastation.  "People were quiet ... not angry.  Sometimes I 
could see desperation ...  many people were just crying ... 
    "It is going to take a long, long, long time to recover, yes," he said. 
He noted that the government is estimating it will take until November or 
December just to get the island's telephone, water and electrical service 
fully restored. 
    "The more complex problem is depression, how people will emotionally 
handle losing everything," Del Valle said. "Some of them lost everything 
with Hugo.  Now, they've lost everything again." 
    PDA spokesperson Stan Hankins said $60,000 in One Great Hour of Sharing 
monies has been sent to the Synod of Puerto Rico. Another $15,000 was given 
to CWS for relief supplies to both Puerto Rico and Cuba, also hit by 
Georges.  Gifts to the church's "Tropical Storm/Hurricanes '98" account may 
be mailed to: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Central Receiving Service, 
Department 97590, Louisville, Ky. 40202-1396.  The account number is 

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