More than a year after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, many residents are still struggling with ongoing challenges.  

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) received 1.1 million registrations in Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria, an estimated 90 percent of households on the island. It took nearly a year to restore power to most homes, and outages today are common, as the electrical grid is weak. 

Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) remains active on the ground in Puerto Rico, as well as in other areas hit by hurricanes in 2017—Texas, Georgia, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Haiti and Cuba.  

LDR’s work includes immediate relief, but the ministry is best known for staying long after the headlines change. A year later, LDR is focusing on long-term recovery, including coordinating and supporting volunteer programs to help people rebuild their homes, helping survivors make personalized plans to help them recover, and providing emotional and spiritual care.  

“In Puerto Rico, the devastation from Hurricane Maria is so widespread and intense that the recovery will take years,” said Joseph Chu, LDR-U.S. associate program director. “When I visited Puerto Rico, I saw suffering, but I also experienced the spirit of resiliency and hope of the people. Not only do they want to bounce back from their loss, they want to help build a stronger Puerto Rico—one that can withstand future storms, natural and human-made alike.” 

“I need help too” 

Pedro J. Colón is originally from Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, an area hit hard by Hurricane Maria. Although he and his wife now live in Ohio, he still owns a house in Toa Baja that he gave to his daughter, Katherine. When the hurricane made landfall, however, Katherine was with her parents in Cincinnati, where she had traveled for an operation. As the Toa Baja house sat empty during the storm, it sustained significant damage, including losing most of its roof. 

“I saw suffering, but I also experienced the spirit of resiliency and hope of the people.”

Colón said his family was denied aid because the house is not in his daughter’s name and he also owns a home in Cincinnati. FEMA says an aid application can be deemed ineligible if there’s insufficient damage to the home, the applicant couldn’t be contacted for a home inspection, or their identity or home title couldn’t be verified, among other reasons. 

“People keep saying, ‘Forget about the house,’ but this house is for my daughter,” he said. “Because of her illness, she won’t have anything if I don’t. She has tried to work, but she couldn’t because of her recent operation.” 

Colón is living in the house while his daughter recuperates in Ohio, despite the broken roof and entrance. He fears someone will steal the family’s belongings if he leaves. 

In situations such as this, LDR is able to step in and offer support. It provided Colón food, a new mattress to replace one that had gotten wet in the storm, and tarps for immediate protection from ongoing rains where the roof was blown off.  

Despite his frustrations, he echoes many of the hurricane survivors’ sentiments. “Help needs to go to those who need it the most, and I know there are those who are worse off than I [am], but I need help too,” he said. “I am grateful for everything that you all have done for me.”  

An exodus 

Carmen Rodriguez Figueroa also lives in Toa Baja, where her home sustained damage from wind and rain during Hurricane Maria. Last May she was referred to LDR and received food as well as emotional and spiritual care from Lydia Morales, pastor of Iglesia Luterana Betania, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. 

While no one knows exactly how many people fled the island after the storm, news outlets have described it as an “exodus.” Many hurricane survivors quickly moved to the U.S. mainland. In October 2017, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency to prepare for the influx of Puerto Ricans arriving to the state. 

Figueroa, who is retired, said this is reflected in her neighborhood. “I don’t have people to talk to,” she said, pointing to the empty houses on her street. “I’m all alone. They have all left.” 

Disasters often leave survivors with trauma. In the case of Hurricane Maria, a long period without such necessities as electricity compounded many people’s feelings of hopelessness. In the months after the hurricane, the suicide rate in Puerto Rico spiked nearly 30 percent. A key part of LDR’s work is emotional and spiritual care, accompanying people who survived disasters to listen to their stories and provide support.  

“This is my pastor,” Figueroa said, referring to Morales. “She makes me laugh and feel happy, not so lonely anymore. She listens to me.”  

Despite the challenges she’s faced, Figueroa remains hopeful. Standing amid the plastic tablecloths, buckets and tarps in her house, she anticipates the time when her home will be fully repaired. “I look forward to the day I can just throw them away,” she said.

Alex Baird
Alex Baird is ELCA senior manager for communications and marketing.

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