In the Aftermath of MARIA
The U.S. Virgin Islands
Hurricane Maria was on the way as Alastair Bate reached the U.S. Virgin Islands. As a member of a Salvation Army disaster relief team, he saw firsthand the damage that Hurricane Irma had done—and now the wind was blowing stronger again.
“Irma had stripped the leaves right off the trees,” says Bate, Territorial Risk Management Secretary for the USA Eastern Territory. “The storm had tossed small planes in the airport and flipped them over. Any structure that hadn’t been made with concrete was ripped apart.”
Bate had flown from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas with two Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) workers from the Southern New England Division. They joined with Michael Schiffler, another EDS volunteer from Hawaii, and Craig Arnold, who, along with Schiffler, had worked with Bate in 2015 when Cyclone Pam hit the Republic of Vanuatu, a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Arnold is Vice President of Enterprise Sales at UPS.
The first night
Bate and the team stayed at one of the few AirBnBs on St. Thomas that was still accommodating guests. The owner, a contractor who had installed steel shutters on his home before the storm, gave them a reduced rate when he learned they were with The Salvation Army.
“Craig and Mike had already found the house, which had been hard to do,” said Bate. “Irma had knocked down every street sign.” The owner had to put up a piece of plywood with a giant asterisk written on it so they could find the house.
During their first night at the house, as they were preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Maria, the generator that provided power to the home broke. Then, the storm hit. For 10 hours, it raged. Bate said it sounded like a jet engine screaming at full throttle outside their door. It kept them awake all night. “We had to shout to communicate with each other, due to the rain and loud winds, which reached 150 mph,” he said.
The next morning, Bate looked into the valley and saw roofs torn from buildings that had previously survived Hurricane Irma. They were without power and running water for three days.
A new challenge
Hurricane Maria had also brought an unexpected challenge. Typically, supplies to St. Thomas came through Puerto Rico. However, Maria devastated that island and essentially cut off supply lines to St. Thomas.
“None of us were expecting Puerto Rico to be hit like it was,” said Bate. “By our second day, the mission had taken a completely different turn.”
So, the team worked daily with the Red Cross and FEMA, who had sent 10,000 boxes of meals to the island. Each box contained a dozen meals filled with pastries, tortillas, beans, and rice. The Salvation Army helped coordinate meal distribution for FEMA across St. Thomas and St. John.
The team used a chainsaw to cut trees that had fallen across the roads. They chartered a speed boat to travel to and from St. John; the storm had stopped all ferries.
To help with the logistics of the recovery, Craig Arnold arranged to have UPS trucks distribute goods across the island.
From response to recovery
The Salvation Army in the Virgin Islands is transitioning from an emergency response mode to recovery operations. Its corps building in St. Thomas is home for an enhanced feeding program. Salvationists and volunteers are helping families on a case–by–case basis.
Recovery will also mean rebuilding damaged buildings and infrastructure. Home Depot®, which had been closed for at least a month, donated supplies to The Salvation Army to begin the rebuilding of homes on the island.
Although the U.S. Virgin Islands have a long road to recovery, Bate believes he will see the people there rebuild just as he saw Vanuatu’s population emerge victorious after Cyclone Pam.
“The looting and post–hurricane crimes always make news, despite the small percentage of people who take such advantage in disaster situations,” says Bate. “The truth is, most people are immediately engaged in helping each other after these events.
“When people consistently come to you to ask, ‘What can I do to help?’ it speaks of the goodness of the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
by Hugo Bravo
The day after Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico, we saw the devastation the winds and rain had wrought upon the beautiful island. We stood in the midst of immeasurable damage, and thought, we cannot get through this alone. We don’t have the resources, the capacity, or the supplies.
At that moment, it was easy to feel hopeless. People had lost everything; some even lost their faith. But as the days passed, we also saw many people come together. We realized that we were not alone; we had never been. That brought hope.
A commitment to ministry
Even before the first Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) team arrived, officers on the island did everything they could, despite limited resources. The bigger corps focused on rebuilding ministries and helping the smaller corps. Members of the San Juan Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) cooked food for the Loiza Corps members, the San Juan Corps cooked for Fajardo Corps, and Caguas Corps cooked for Humacao Corps.
Although the homes and families of many corps officers had also been affected by the storm, they continued to serve. They worked, cooked, and improvised in any way they could. For example, one officer who had no access to a kitchen made a fire outside with wood and matches, just so he could feed other people.
Our many young officers in the Puerto Rico & Virgin Islands Division served their corps with such commitment, it was as if they had been there for many years.
Before the storm hit, we offered an officer in St. Croix an opportunity to come to Puerto Rico. It would have been safer for him to be with us. However, he told us he would stay in St. Croix. He was taking care of three children from his church. Their parents were away from the island, and the children had nowhere to stay. The officer and the kids withstood the storm in his house. For two weeks, we did not hear from him, until, by the grace of God, he found Wi-Fi on the island and messaged us, “I am okay.”
Honored to serve
We are honored to serve alongside the people who minister through The Salvation Army. There are volunteers in Puerto Rico who help us during the day—and sleep in their cars at night—because it is all they have left. We never hear a complaint or a negative word from them, only a desire to help people who have even less than they do. We have Army employees who stand on line for 13 hours just to get $20 worth of gasoline; or they stand in front of a supermarket for food, only to see when they arrive that all the food is gone. The next day, they come back to do it again.
We are grateful for The Salvation Army’s EDS team, because they reached victims who had been isolated because of flooded roads. With the help of EDS, we are now distributing close to 100,000 hot and cold meals to people affected by the storm.
The young people are some of the most dedicated to the mission. The love of Jesus shines in everything they do, from cleaning tables so 600 people can sit and eat comfortably, to playing music for them to lift their spirits. When we delivered food to a seniors’ community, we saw children as young as 12 carry heavy boxes of water. When they came back after a long day of work, they turned to us and asked, “Many of the residents have had their apartments flooded. Can we return and help them get the water out of their rooms?” Those wonderful young people are the future of Puerto Rico and of The Salvation Army.
Remind them they are loved
Right now, much is being done to help, but we know that the work is far from over. After the day is done and we return home, we sit in the dark and eat two of the same box meals that we gave out throughout the day. Yet, we are filled with gratitude. We pray to God, “Lord, thank you for this meal, because we know there are many souls in Puerto Rico who are without food tonight. Tomorrow, please help us get to them. Take us to feed them, to give them hope, and to remind them that they are loved by us and by You.”
When The Salvation Army helps people in need, there are no headliners or protagonists. Nobody who wears our shield is interested in being the first, the best, the most newsworthy, or the most brilliant. The Army comes with just one goal: to show every person who suffers and who is in need that we care about him or her, and that we all stand together.
Every day brings a new challenge, but with God’s help, we will all rise as one and create a stronger, safer, and better Puerto Rico. Whether serving food to a hungry family, or hugging someone to remind them they are loved—every hand counts.
by Majors Eric and Yolanda Rodriguez
—Majors Eric and Yolanda Rodriguez are the leaders of the USA Eastern Territory’s Puerto Rico & Virgin Islands Division