Less than two weeks after Hurricane Irma rocked the Caribbean islands and the U.S. Atlantic Coast, Hurricane Maria tore through a similar path over the last two days. Many small Caribbean islands were hit a second time, causing more widespread damage.
Irma and Maria are among the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, wreaking havoc across Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other locations in the Caribbean.
While Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) staff are aware of significant destruction in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, reports of the extent of the damage have been scarce so far.
Puerto Rico’s power system is largely destroyed, meaning that millions likely won’t have power for months. Parts of the island received nearly 40 inches of rain when Maria hit. The storm has contributed to at least 13 deaths there, according to the most recent estimates.
The storm has killed at least 30 people across the Caribbean, and the power grid on the islands of St. Thomas and St. John will reportedly have to be rebuilt.
LDR staff has been continually contacting colleagues, congregations and partners, and has received some communication from them since the storm made landfall.
Flooding in Puerto Rico
“Now I understand what catastrophic means,” said Idalia Negron, director for evangelical mission with the Caribbean Synod, in a message to LDR staff. “In the community of Levittown [in Puerto Rico], where more than 600,000 families live, people were taken out of their homes because of the opening of a dam in Bayamón.”
Héctor J. Camareno Ojeda, president of Lutheran Social Services of Puerto Rico, confirmed the destruction caused by flooding. “La Plata dam, located on the river of the same name, had to be opened to avoid overtopping,” he said. “Downstream-river municipalities like Toa Baja, Vega Baja and Dorado, that are mostly plain, suffered from the rushing water of the river to places never seen. The Levittown flooding happened because of this. Also, Toa Baja and Vega Baja had a higher percentage of wooden structures and poor communities.”
Ojeda shared that communities in his area were working to clean debris and roads, and reported long lines at gas stations and supermarkets. “There is a curfew until tomorrow and we are not supposed to be wandering around [because of] electric posts, cables and trees in the roads,” he said.
Curfews in effect on Virgin Islands
Albert Starr, ELCA director for ethnic specific and multicultural ministries, heard from Merle Malone, interim pastor of Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Thomas, that the island is under a complete curfew after flooding, power outage and the accumulation of storm debris on the roads.
“In spite of the curfew, Pastor Malone had made some limited ventures out to attend to congregation and community,” Starr said. “She expressed great concern that the anxiety, stress, grief levels and sense of loss are running extremely high.
“It is significant that as a caregiver and first responder, Pastor Malone expressed how good it felt to have someone on the phone just to listen, pray and affirm that she and others like her are not alone. I pledged our continued care, prayerful support and the assurance that our Caribbean Synod sisters and brothers are not alone.”
In a message to LDR staff, Junia John-Straker, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands, shared: “Unfortunately, St. Croix was devastated by Hurricane Maria. The island looks like a war zone.”
She said her local hospital sustained some damage, and some patients will need to be evacuated. In addition, senior housing in the area sustained roof damage to several of its buildings. “All our facilities here on St. Croix and St. Thomas will require some repairs,” she said. “We do have some employees with substantial losses at home. We were under a 24-hour curfew with everything shut down for the past two days, but today it is being relaxed for four hours, allowing people to go grocery shopping.
“It will take some work and some time to get us back. This was a rough one and I think the recovery is going to be hard and long.”