More than seven weeks after a massive hurricane wreaked devastation on Puerto Rico, the archbishop of San Juan wants people to know that basic supplies are still needed and that recovery will take years.
“In Puerto Rico, we’re still in the emergency phase. We still need water, we still need food, we still need clothing,” Archbishop Roberto González Nieves said on Monday. He was speaking at an event hosted by Catholic Extension at the same time as the fall gathering of the U.S. bishops conference in Baltimore.
Catholic Extension is a Chicago-based charitable organization that assists dioceses in rural and developing places in the United States. During the event, Joe Boland, the group’s vice president for mission, said that they had donated more than $365,000 to dioceses affected by hurricanes in Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. He also announced the launch of a multi-year fundraising effort to help rebuild church infrastructure. After Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, Catholic Extension raised more than $10 million over a number of years to support rebuilding efforts. Mr. Boland said the campaign would mirror that one, but he said it is too early to tell how great the need will be.
People in Puerto Rico have adapted to life without electricity—70 percent of the island still lacks electrical power.
Archbishop González Nieves said that people in Puerto Rico have adapted to life without electricity—70 percent of the island still lacks electrical power. He noted that some people are sharing gas grills in the street with neighbors and said Mass attendance at the cathedral has increased every Sunday since the storm hit on Sept. 20.
“One feels completely impotent after a catastrophe of this magnitude,” the archbishop said. But, he continued, “I’ve been very impacted by the resiliency of our people. It’s not just our people but human nature. It’s a wonderful capacity to rebound and to grow in hope and trust.”
When asked if Puerto Ricans had felt abandoned in the days after the storm, when critics accused the Trump administration of a poor response to the storm, the archbishop said he had “mixed feelings,” describing the United States and the Catholic Church as “very generous.”
Puerto Rico’s governor on Monday asked the federal government for $94.4 billion as the island struggles to recover from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria, with much of the U.S. territory without power and thousands still homeless. So far, Congress has approved nearly $5 billion in aid for Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria caused widespread damage and the worst blackout in U.S. history.
During the bishops conference meeting, the head of Catholic Charities USA announced that the organization has distributed more than $18 million this year to disaster sites in the United States, including $3.5 million to Puerto Rico.
Archbishop González Nieves said Puerto Ricans should take charge of reconstruction efforts to help the island’s“sense of self esteem” and that residents had to pay special attention to government corruption as relief checks come in.
Part of the island’s reconstruction, he said, should include a focus on renewable energy because residents have “become more aware of the impact of climate change.”
We’re a very poor part of the richest country in the world.
He said that in the weeks following the storm, when residents were still grappling with no light at night, the “feeling of aloneness was overwhelming.”
The archbishop was joined by Bishop Herbert Bevard, who leads the Diocese of Saint Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Bishop Curtis Guillory from the Diocese of Beaumont, Tex., both areas that are still recovering from other storms.
Bishop Bevard noted that one of the challenges facing his diocese is that it does not qualify for international aid, either from government or Catholic sources, because it is part of “the richest country in the world.
“But in our case we’re a very poor part of the richest country in the world,” he said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.