Covid-19Magazine Exclusive

In Puerto Rico, disaster recovery continues

Salvation Army volunteers in Puerto Rico load up trucks with home supplies to be delivered to families in the community.

In the fall of 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico. They caused over $90 billion in damages and became the worst natural disasters in the island’s history. Almost two years later, the recovery is far from done. Thousands of houses have blue tarps covering the roofs, which means that there are still families waiting for repairs promised by government officials.

COVID-19 has given the The Salvation Army’s hurricane recovery effort a new look. Helpers now come wearing masks, gloves, and are social distancing. Their service to Puerto Rico is as strong as ever.


Adapting and serving

“Even before COVID–19, The Salvation Army reached out to parts of Puerto Rico that no other agencies had visited, such as towns in the mountains where people must travel on foot,” says Major Juan Mercado, divisional commander of the Puerto Rico & Virgin Islands Division. “But during COVID, the church has become more public than ever before. We’re helping in ways that many of us never imagined.”

Nichole Roy, Long Term Recovery Project coordinator, says, “In the last few months, our ratio of volunteers has gone up.  We have more people actively looking for help. It’s our job to plan better, think outside the box, and see how we can work to assure the safety of our staff as well as the people we help. But learning new ways to adapt is what our teams do best.”

Major Mercado says that COVID–19 has made new interactions with the community possible. For example, in Arecibo, the police show up to help distribute food faster, and at the same time, keep order if things get too busy.

“Doing all-virtual prayer meetings has made it possible to reach out to new people,” says Mercado. He remembers a woman who reached out to The Salvation Army in Puerto Rico through Facebook. She feared COVID–19 had infected her and she asked for prayer.

“Thankfully, her tests were negative, but she was grateful for the members of our ministry who reached out and comforted her when she needed it,” says Mercado.

Says Roy, “When people have the least amount of hope, that is when The Salvation Army and our volunteers work the hardest. They know the difference their work makes in their own lives and in the lives of the people they help.”


FEMA and solar panels

The Salvation Army received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to continue to help Puerto Rico in its recovery effort. The Army’s House to Homes program was able to allocate these funds for supplies and pay staff to provide community services.

“The grant was instrumental in hiring case managers, counselors, and therapists, along with getting phones and computers for them,” says Roy. “With the staff being paid through the grant, The Salvation Army can put any money they have directly into helping people. They give the community food and even replace objects that they may have lost in the storms, such as furniture, and modern necessities like solar panels for their homes.”

“Solar panels are a big part of what we supply now,” says Mercado. “People who have long-term illnesses may need energy for a fridge that keeps their medicines cold or keeps a machine running because it helps them breathe. They can’t survive if their homes don’t have some sort of power. With solar panels, they can live better than before, and come closer to being self-sufficient.”

“Just like the tables and cabinets we provide for a home, those solar panels come directly from Puerto Rico. We don’t import them,” says Roy. “We help the local businesses and put money back into the economy of the island. Our orders will create jobs, from the engineers making the solar panels to the deliverymen bringing them to us.”


Spiritual and mental health

Mercado says faith has carried the hopes of the people of Puerto Rico. COVID-19, as did the hurricanes, has put everyone on a level playing field when it comes to recovery.

“When the hurricanes hit, there were people living in high-rise apartments and new houses who were sitting and eating next to the poorest members of our ministry,” says Mercado. “There is power in that type of community, and in that type of help we provide for each other.”

Mercado also encourages people in his ministry to seek help. Spiritual help is important, he says, and so is mental help, which is critical after years of loss, pain, and worry.

“There is a terrible stigma of being too afraid to say that you’re not handling a situation as well as you might want,” says Mercado. “This attitude is affecting everyone, even our spiritual leaders. Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and its triggers are real.”

“Believe in God’s promises and seek Him, but also believe in His people and seek the help you may need from them.”

by Hugo Bravo