Rebuilding Hope: UMCOR, UMVIM aid Puerto Rico after 2017 hurricanes

By John W. Coleman
Hope 1 - PR roof repair
Photo: John W. Coleman

As September’s Hurricane Dorian grazed Puerto Rico’s coast, residents were relieved to be spared an encore of the historic, widespread destruction they suffered two years ago from hurricanes Maria and Irma, both of which struck in September 2017.

“We were in the storm for about eight hours. I lost more than half of my roof,” recalls survivor Jose Rivera. When he found a friend’s house and other nearby homes “totally gone,” he said, “It destroyed my heart.”

Others recall extensive damage to structures from severe winds and flooding, lack of food and water and a loss of electricity for many months because of a devastated antiquated power grid. More than 400,000 residents have left the island since the storm; and many who remain have suffered from illness and depression.

Puerto Rico’s recovery has progressed slowly but steadily, thanks largely to the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico (Iglesia Metodista Puerto Rico) and the expertise, partnerships and resources it has gained and shared in that arduous effort. Leading the way is its “social holiness” ministry, the aptly named ReHACE (Rebuilding Communities with Hope — i.e., Rehaciendo Comunidades con Esperanza).

The MCPR has 100 churches and about a third of them were damaged by the storms. Yet clergy and lay members have focused on helping their neighbors and providing assistance and hospitality to U.S. volunteers since the first teams arrived.

ReHACE has deployed resources and work teams into 25 heavily populated areas, aided by the United Methodist Committee on Relief and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. Of the more than 250,000 homes reportedly damaged, they have helped repair over 320 that were uninsured and not served by FEMA, aiding struggling residents who had nowhere else to turn.

UMCOR provides foundation for recovery work

UMCOR has provided crucial support in case management, along with ample funds and strategic planning assistance. It also trained over 200 local disaster response leaders.

Since February 2018, more than 2,300 U.S. mission volunteers on 212 teams (as of August 2019) have provided well over 70,000 hours of labor, mostly to repair homes.

ReHACE hires local contractors as supervising foremen and bilingual translators to ease communication between English-speaking volunteers and their local coworkers and hosts.

Volunteers demonstrate the ‘love of Jesus’

“It still amazes me to see people coming from other places just to work here, just to show us the love of Jesus” said Stephanie Acosta, a translator. “Seeing the before and after of the houses? That’s hope right there.”

Acosta works with other residents, staff and volunteers that came from three Indiana Conference churches. The 19-member team worked on four homes, mostly scraping, painting, patching and sealing water-damaged walls and roofs and installing windows.

The need is great for more UMVIM teams with skilled personnel, especially roofers. “Currently, there are 35,000 houses still covered with blue tarps,” said UMCOR consultant Tymera Jackson, who helps UMVIM teams in the U.S. schedule their trips and fulfill requirements before they head to Puerto Rico.

Work of recovery will extend for years

“Rehabilitating Puerto Rico from Maria’s destruction will take up to a decade, and our support must be in it for the long-term,” said Tom Vencuss, mission and disaster response coordinator for the New York Conference. He coordinates UMVIM’s work in Puerto Rico for UMCOR.

“We’re going into our third year, and there may be a natural attrition of interest as new disasters claim our attention,” Vencuss explained. In fact, work teams are still responding to destruction caused by other hurricanes, including Michael, Harvey and Sandy, plus tornadoes in Oklahoma and wildfires in California, among other disasters.

Extending hope with a commitment to stay

UMCOR is known for its long-term commitment to continue case management efforts long after other disaster response agencies have left the scene.

“We can rebuild our homeland together,” said MCPR Bishop Hector Ortiz. “We are grateful for The United Methodist Church’s support, especially for UMCOR and the volunteers who have come to help us recover. Over 4,000 of our people died from this tragedy; but we have actually saved lives, and now we have a comprehensive plan for full recovery.”

Through your giving this season, you can continue to Give Hope to people as they recover from hurricanes and prepare for those to come.

John W. Coleman is the communications director for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church.


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