There is something disconcerting about the official website for the Archdiocese of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico: As of Oct. 19, its last press releases are about events on Sept. 16. There is no mention of Hurricane Maria at all because internet services have been down since Sept. 20, when the hurricane hit as a Category 4 storm.
Forty-eight people are known to have died in Puerto Rico from the devastating windstorm. The island suffered catastrophic damage to its electrical grid when sustained winds of 109 miles per hour were recorded raking across the island, leaving almost 80% of its 3.6 million people without power. It was estimated that power could remain off for large portions of Puerto Rico for months.
Heavy rainfall peaked at 37.9 inches in Caguas (slightly over three feet). San Juan was affected by widespread flooding which was waist deep in some places. The combination of storm surges and flash flooding — especially because of the release of the La Plata Lake Dam — trapped thousands of residents in the area of Toa Baja. Survivors said that floodwaters rose to six feet in 30 minutes. About 80% of the country’s agriculture has been wiped out.
The Register was able to speak Oct. 19 with Father Enrique Camacho, a diocesan priest who is the head of Caritas (Catholic Charities) for Puerto Rico. He is based in San Juan.
What is the situation on the ground today?
One month has passed since the hurricane and the situation is not good. It has improved a little bit in metropolitan areas, but it is still very difficult. 85% of the population still has no electricity. 56% of the population has no access to phones. Those who do have access to cell phones only get access sometimes. It all depends where you are. Because of this, communication is very hard — even for those of us on the island to communicate to each other. Areas that have almost no communication at all are the interior of the island and several coastal areas that were strongly affected by the hurricane.
Another problem is water. There are people drinking contaminated water, which is causing a bad health situation, and people need food. There are areas where people are hungry.
What are the priorities for Catholic Charities?
Our priorities are to provide the basic necessities: food, water and medicine. We are working with the six dioceses on the island. In every diocese, we have set up warehouses. First, the supplies arrive in the port or airport of San Juan and then we divide the supplies for the six dioceses. Today we received 19 containers of water from Food for the Poor. We are giving food vouchers to all the parishes.
What groups are helping Puerto Rico?
We have gotten a great deal of support from Catholic Charities USA (of which we are a part), the Puerto Rican diaspora across the U.S., the United States and several European nations. For example, Caritas Spain has sent us medicine. The Houston baseball team the Astros has also been helping us, through their players Carlos Beltran and Carlos Correa.
How is the infrastructure in Puerto Rico?
Things are better with regards to the major highways. In the beginning, the situation was very bad, with electric poles down everywhere. The military cleaned up the major highways. But the problem is the minor highways and local roads. For example, my secretary lives in a mountain town outside of San Juan. It used to take her 45 minutes to get to work. Now, it takes her six hours. Between her house and our office, seven bridges collapsed.
The towns outside of San Juan are suffering much more than us. San Juan has many buildings made of cement. There are some towns which were completely destroyed because most of the buildings were made of wood.
What are other difficult situations that have arisen because of the hurricane?
Our metropolitan areas are now full of people. We have tons of traffic in San Juan. What is happening is that people are driving in from the countryside for the day to use the ATM machines, buy food and fill their cars up with gasoline — because everything is basically working here. In fact, I am stuck in traffic now as we are speaking.
Was Puerto Rico prepared for this?
No one was prepared for this. We have never lived a situation like this before. The last time we had a hurricane this strong was in 1928 with Hurricane San Felipe Segundo, but it was not as strong as Maria. My grandmother was a young girl when it happened.
What is day-to-day life like now?
Many people are without work now. Schools are closed. Maybe next week, some schools will open. We don’t know. Many hotels have closed. Restaurants, shops businesses have closed. This has worsened our economic situation. We are trying to live this situation with patience.
It is believed that since the hurricane over 100,000 people have left Puerto Rico to live with family in the US. Many sick people left because it was their only option to get care. The panorama is complicated because some people have been left alone because of this mass immigration.
What is the situation with Church buildings?
Many churches were destroyed or damaged. In some cases, the cupolas of churches broke. Many parishioners have left, leaving some parishes almost empty. The parishioners have no money, so there is no collection. There is no electricity is most churches. It is complicated. Many churches had to close because of the damage.
Priests are working to visit families and try to help as many people in their own parishes as possible. The first priority for them is to attend to the basic necessities of life for their parishioners. So fixing church buildings is not the priority right now. That will come. The buildings are all insured, so pastors are waiting for that money to come through.
How has this hurricane affected your Catholic faith?
In terms of my faith, we see that God always has a plan and that that plan is good. Many good things have happened after Hurricane Maria. Before the Hurricane, everyone was always speaking about our country’s debt. Now, nobody is talking about it. We speak about building up Puerto Rico again. Kids are now going outside and playing and riding their bicycles. They aren’t inside using their cell phones or playing video games. Families are helping each other out and their neighbors. This brings us closer to God.
After the hurricane, it was surprising to see how people were smiling and helping each other. I remember we brought food to one family, and they said, “No, bring it to my neighbor.” When I asked them how they were doing, they said, “Fine.” But then I saw that their house was destroyed.
I pray every day that God gives me strength to do His will. This is an important moment to live God’s love. We are trying to be positive.
Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from New York City.
Donations can be sent to Catholic Charities USA, earmarked for Puerto Rico. 100% of donations go directly to disaster efforts.