Puerto Rico, one year after the storm
Last September, Hurricane Maria left the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and 3 million of its citizens without power, dangerously short on supplies, and with permanent damage to its residences, infrastructures, and agricultures. The Category 5 hurricane, which caused nearly $100 billion in damage, brought sustained winds of 175–200 mph, 20 inches of rain, and was the worst storm to hit the Caribbean island in a century. The Puerto Rican government announced in August that 1,427 people died because of the hurricane. Major Yolanda Rodríguez, a leader of the Puerto Rico & Virgin Islands Division and based in San Juan, remembers, “After the hurricane, we didn’t know if our officers were alive. We didn’t have any way to communicate with them. There were zero communications.”
The people of Puerto Rico have lost homes, jobs, possessions, and even loved ones to the storm, but their faith in God has helped them to triumph.
Majors Eric and Yolanda Rodríguez, leaders of the Puerto Rico & Virgin Islands Division since 2016, have lived through five hurricanes. But Hurricane Maria, which hit last September, by far was the worst.
“Nothing can compare to Maria,” Major Eric says. “Being in the middle of that storm was one of the scariest things I’ve experienced.”
The Rodríguezes rode out Maria in their home and were astonished to see the damage when they emerged.
“It was devastating,” Eric said. “We passed areas where it looked like a nuclear bomb [had exploded]. Little streams transformed into huge rivers.”
Major Yolanda said she and Eric drove around to check on Salvation Army officers.
It took Eric and Yolanda weeks to visit some officers; a month passed before they knew the officer in St. Croix was okay.
Some Salvation Army facilities sustained damage. The building in Humacao on the eastern side of the island was destroyed; the officers in St. Thomas lost their home.
“We are still having issues with many of our properties around the island,” Eric said. “Little by little, we are making progress. I wish things were moving faster.”
Yolanda said the recovery has been “slow” and it took months to receive some federal relief aid.
“Things have been challenging,” she said. “We have a lot of people who still don’t have roofs. We have a lot of people who still don’t have power.”
In the mountainous center of the island, thousands of people are still without power, including some of Eric’s siblings.
“Many people still suffer and are going through very difficult times,” Eric said.
“We talk about Puerto Rico before Maria and Puerto Rico after Maria,” Yolanda said. “The people recognize that the Army has done a fantastic job. The mission of the Army has been fulfilled, no doubt about it.
“We’re still helping people. The truth is, if you don’t have electricity, you need groceries that don’t go in the refrigerator. You also need water. Some places don’t have water. This has been a tough situation.”
Eric said that Hurricane Maria, while catastrophic, provided a “great opportunity to serve.”
“I believe that The Salvation Army today is better recognized than in the past,” he said. “People know that we care and that we’re here to provide support.”
Many homes lost roofs. Once those are replaced, The Salvation Army will help with the rest. The Army has set aside $7 million to spend over the next three years on appliances and furniture.
“There are other organizations helping to rebuild houses,” Rodríguez said. “Our plan is to help them furnish their homes.
“We have had the opportunity to encourage, to motivate, and to lend a hand, especially to those who are without hope. We’re bringing hope and showing that there are still people who care.”
The Rodríguezes said The Salvation Army is recognized as a source of hope and help on the island. People have come to Yolanda on the street to express thanks.
“They begin to cry and hug me,” she said. “We say, ‘We did what we are supposed to do.’ Our officers have been amazing—working since the day after the hurricane.”
In the days and weeks after Maria, Eric and Yolanda preached sermons of encouragement, hope, and God’s mercy and protection.
“I can say that, even in the midst of these huge difficulties, we grew as Christians,” Yolanda said. “You have nothing but reliance on the Lord. We have seen His mercies and His compassion and His kindness to us. He has provided whatever we’ve needed.
“We are a different people now. We really understand the Lord’s power in a real sense. We can feel the prayers of so many people.”
Eric agreed, saying, “Even in the midst of the storm, He was taking care of us. God has been faithful, no doubt about it.”
Alexa Rentas and Israel Cintron had raised their children Lixandra, Xavier, and Jackeline to love and trust God, especially in times when their faith might be tested.
“If you give thanks to the Lord in your days of abundance, you will do the same in your days of scarcity,” Alexa would say.
This lesson would stay with the family during Hurricane Maria as they fled their home in Santurce, Puerto Rico to stay in a motel. Three days later, the family was running out of supplies and food.
“We arrived at the motel with about $30 in cash. No business was taking credit cards because of the power outages. That was something that I’m sure many people, including us, didn’t expect,” says Israel.
Their home in Santurce was destroyed, and Israel was out of a job; the resort where he worked, El Conquistador, had shut down. Relatives offered the family space, but with limited rooms, only the children were able to go. For days, Alexa and Israel slept in their car and showered in public locker rooms by the beach. When the family needed food, they visited The Salvation Army San Juan Corps for the first time, hoping that at least their children would eat.
As they sat down, Israel and Alexa saw other people standing in the food line on behalf of other people who were too weak to stand themselves. Families shared their portions with other families. Army volunteers and officers worked with smiles on their faces, even as arguments broke out among people on line. The corps volunteers understood that everyone was hungry, frustrated, and unsure of what the future would bring.
Israel felt a deep sense of gratitude to be among those being helped. He turned to Alexa and said he wanted to volunteer too. Daughter Lixandra told her father, “If you’re going to help, I want to help.”
Soon, the children were looking for ways to serve alongside their father. They unpacked boxes, served food, and cleaned tables. Alexa, who nursed an injury, assisted by talking to families looking for practical services.
“The best way to show you love God is to show love for others,” says Alexa.
Today, the family is in a new apartment. Israel has found work closer to home, which allows the family to dedicate more time to the San Juan Corps and to each other.
“Even as we’re preparing for the next storm season and storing food in easy–to–move containers, we know there’s no way to avoid an event like Maria,” says Alexa. “Life is made of highs, lows, and happy mediums. But God does not forget or forsake us in any of them.”
Israel believes that the sense of unity and humanity that welcomed the family to eat at the San Juan Corps is something that Puerto Rico needs today.
“One of the most touching stories I heard from survivors was how people who lived in apartments came out when the storm had settled, sat on roofs and balconies, and met their neighbors for the first time,” says Israel. “People united as one, though they had lived for years without even knowing each other’s names.”
When Glenda Torres heard that Hurricane Maria was about to hit the island, she gathered any important files that she could find, and took her two daughters, Nairobi and Krista, to stay at a friend’s house. She prayed that her home would still be standing when she returned the next day.
“As I was coming around the block, I saw that my home was standing, but with its roof completely blown off,” remembers Glenda. “My girls and I cried a lot at that moment.”
Lieutenant Xiomara Berberena, corps officer at the Salvation Army Arecibo Corps, was a support to the family. “I remember hugging Glenda, telling her that we would be there for all of them,” said Berberena. “What do you tell someone who lost their home overnight, through no fault of their own? You remind them to trust God; He would find a way to lift them all up, somehow.”
At the Arecibo Corps, where Glenda and her daughters attend, they volunteered to help people who had also suffered because of the storm.
“We didn’t want to spend time thinking about what we had lost. Instead, we wanted to help those who had lost so much more than we had,” says Glenda.
Berberena was moved by how Glenda’s daughters involved themselves in the corps’ efforts to serve the community. A day after the hurricane, they helped their mother to distribute food.
“While Krista was packing and unpacking boxes, Nairobi was speaking to people coming for help. She also took down their information for future resources. Seeing them serve with smiles on their faces was inspiring,” says Berberena.
“Even as the girls suffered their own loss, they wanted to bless others.”
Glenda is still hoping to make repairs to their home. Even with financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the restoration has proven to be expensive. She wants to make the home habitable again—for other family members who need a place to live.
“After the storm, I have seen the Puerto Rican people extend their hands to help others more than ever. We have always had each other’s backs. But now, I see it more—even one year later,” says Glenda. “Physically and spiritually, our island was shattered. But little by little, by the grace of God, we’re all coming back.”
Having survived the storm, Magdalena Rodríguez’s home became a surrogate stop for Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) trucks when the local corps was not large enough to keep every EDS truck needed. She and her husband German, both soldiers at the Fajardo Corps, kept the trucks clean and drove them to the corps every morning. German was the only person at the corps, (besides the officers), licensed to operate the vehicles.
“After the hurricane, the corps was devastated. Walls were pushed in, doors were broken, and the store was flooded,” says Magdalena. “We had to wait a bit to clean the store and get the supplies to give away. But when we started, we went straight to work, and we worked in God’s name.”
She remembers feeling joy from being able to give supplies and provisions to families who needed them. “Big stores were putting limits on what people could buy. Not just food, but things like diapers as well. Families were coming to us when they still needed more of what the stores couldn’t give them.”
But as the Rodríguez family worked, an unexpected tragedy came upon them. German, who suffered from Lupus and chronic kidney disease, contracted an infection from unclean water that remained in the island after the storm.
“His kidney function went from 40 percent to 27 percent,” said Magdalena. “I knew he wasn’t feeling well, even when he was pushing himself to work. When he was asking to stay home on Sundays, that’s when I knew it was serious. He loved being in church.”
On Christmas Eve of 2017, only months after Hurricane Maria, German Rodríguez passed away. He was one of the many Puerto Ricans who lost their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Before falling into a coma, German asked his wife for news and updates on the corps. He wanted to know if the officers were getting the help they needed. “German was in the Lord’s service every moment that he was awake,” says Magdalena. “I’m confident that he’s in the Lord’s service, even now.”
On January 1st, while she and her youngest son Angel visited her older son Christian in Texas, Magdalena thought about starting a new life in the states, away from Puerto Rico, as so many people had done after the storm. But as she prayed and read the Bible, she felt God’s presence stronger than ever. It made her realize that her family’s heart was still in Puerto Rico, and even in the most painful circumstances, God would remain by her side.
Magdalena plans to return to Puerto Rico and to continue to be involved at the Fajardo Corps. She will carry on German’s work, who had dedicated his life to the Lord and to his family.
“There is still work that needs to be done. But, I know that with God, I will get through this, and so will Puerto Rico.”
Wilfredo Colón Medina and Rachel M. Arroyo Muñoz were confident that their house in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico, would survive the night of Maria. It had already survived previous hurricane seasons.
But by 8:30 the next morning, water inside their home was knee deep. A river had overflowed, a sewer system pipe had burst, and rain was still pouring from the sky. The couple, along with their daughter Hazel and their family dog Shu, left their home. In the process, Wilfredo injured his leg.
“The rain had closed off streets and roads around us. We felt trapped in our neighborhood,” says Rachel.
They stayed at a local public school, which residents used as a refuge for families who had evacuated their homes. Later that night after the storm had passed, police encouraged families to return home, if possible; the school was dangerously over capacity and low on beds and food. They had planned for 200 people to come; the real number was almost 400.
The family had lost their possessions. Except for a few outfits hung high in a closet, all their clothing and shoes were soaked. Furniture, an electric bed, and a new kitchen stove were now useless. Their three cars were also flooded.
With mold and fungus rising to the ceiling, it would be two weeks before the family could start cleaning up. When they began, friends who were members of The Salvation Army in Ponce visited and helped Rachel and Wilfredo, whose injured leg was still healing.
“We didn’t have real knowledge of the church, even though we knew a few Salvationists. But when we needed help the most, they were the only ones who came to clean and brought food from the Army’s feeding events,” says Rachel.
Even before the hurricane, the family had been looking for a church. When they visited the Ponce Corps to thank everyone for their ministry of help, they felt loved and at home. Becoming part of the ministry was an easy decision for them.
Even though their house is now equipped with gates, new doors, and safety features to minimize flooding from the next hurricane, they know 100 percent readiness against another event like Maria is only a dream. But now as Salvation Army soldiers at the Ponce Corps, their faith in God and in each other has grown stronger than any future storm.
“When we saw what had happened to our home, we were sad, but we also saw this as an opportunity to start over,” says Wilfredo. “Material possessions come and go. I never had a negative thought about how our life would be from now on. We knew that goodness, in some form, would be on the way. It came with the Army, and with each other. Even in this difficult situation, Rachel and I found ways to unite our love and support each other.”
“We didn’t become soldiers just because of what the Army had done for us,” says Wilfredo. “It was witnessing the whole mission of the Army. While other churches we saw only helped their own members, the Ponce Corps fed and reached out to everyone they could.”
“Any day, after a storm or not, The Salvation Army puts no limitations on who or how much they help,” says Rachel. “That is what Jesus would do for His community if He was in Puerto Rico today.”
by Hugo Bravo, Linette Luna, and Robert Mitchell
photography by Susan Magnano