Puerto Rico One Year Later: Thriving Through Maria

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September 20, 2017. It was a perfectly normal rainy day in Puerto Rico. Until it wasn’t. Sure there was a hurricane coming, but the whole event was only supposed to take 12 hours. The hearty, family-oriented communities built within cities, tucked away in mountain villages, and spread across the rolling countryside of Puerto Rico took the light warnings in stride and prepared as usual for a storm.

But this was not your regular hurricane. Annie Irizarry, who had just planted a brand new La Viña with her husband earlier in 2017, said, “It was like King Kong camped out on top of the mountains and was attacking in all his fury.” The 12 hours they had prepared for stretched to 30 hours, as the hurricane got caught up in the mountainous terrain. Like a tourist who decides on a whim to stay another day, Maria refused to leave this tropical island paradise. When Hurricane Maria finally moved on to the north, she left wreck and ruin behind. It was not just a swath across this U.S. territory, but the whole of the island had been pummeled to her bare bones, and it was only two weeks after Hurricane Irma had dropped by as a Category 5 hurricane.

You’ve probably heard and long forgotten the statistics: the 35 X 100 mile, Connecticut-sized archipelago was 100% without electrical power. Most households in the cities experienced 41 days without cell phone service, 68 days without water, and 84 days without electricity following the storm. For the countryside, it was much longer until restoration. While water has been restored 100%, the island only moved from 97% to 100% of the population restored to the electrical grid on the very day these Vineyard pastors were interviewed for this update, August 14, 2018. That means there were still remote areas that had been without electricity for 37 days shy of a year!  That is 328 nights of trying to save your flashlight batteries for emergencies, or lighting a torch to find your bed; 328 days of no air conditioner, dishwasher, easy laundry, easy cooking, or easy cell phone charging, no computer; 328 nights of no Netflix at the end of a busy day, when all someone wants to do is check out mentally from the trauma of what his or her life has become. This first-world people was driven back into history, losing 100+ years of technology and communication advancements overnight.

Vineyard Missions talked to two of the church-planting pastors God placed on the ground during this catastrophe to get a sense of what it feels like in Puerto Rico one year after Maria came and camped out on their island. Now that they’ve mostly dug out from the wreckage, these pastors, along with others, both faith-based and community-based, are beginning to ask, “So how’s your heart?” We found some positives, and negatives, and are in communication about what needs are still lurking quietly. There are some long-term issues discussed below that will need to be addressed if Puerto Rico is to remain sustainable. If you have no time to read further, the bottom line is that the population is exhausted, trauma-fatigued, and needs hope for tomorrow. Read on to hear the backstory and brand new details of how God is writing His story across the hearts of the people of Puerto Rico after Maria’s devastation.

Church Planting: God Plans Ahead

Seventeen and a half years before Hurricane Maria began hurtling toward the Caribbean, God called Marvin Suarez, his wife Carmen, and their two young children to plant a La Viña church in Puerto Rico. The plant took root and began to grow! They planted another church in 2007, and another in 2013, and another in 2017 (This 2017 La Viña plant’s pastor, Lou Irizarry, was our other interviewed pastor. The congregations are spread out all over Puerto Rico.

Those churches have been connected to many different mainland U.S. Vineyards and their congregations over the years. Both Lou and Marvin went out of their way to express how loved and cared for that they and their congregations felt after Maria by the Vineyard Movement as a whole.

The Experience of Maria’s Strength

Pastors Carmen and Marvin Suarez were on the ground in a cement house during Maria (as were Pastors Annie and Lou). Marvin said, “It wasn’t too bad. It was just rain for us,” then went on to describe sideways rain and leaves and debris forced into the cement walls because the wind was so severe—up to 200 MPH according to the reports of the wind gauges at the university on the island. There have been such widely diverse numbers in the death toll that the final number is still not settled. Marvin gravitated toward the range that Harvard’s study [1]  produced in May 2018 when they finally plucked a number of 4,645 deaths from right from the middle of their range. It is hard to pinpoint figures because deaths did not occur only during those 30 hours of terror but continued to mount as living conditions and medical supplies and service availability quickly deteriorated.

Days after the Category 5 storm had departed, as the digging out began, Pastor Marvin spoke with a devastated man named Mr. Castillo who shared, “I’ve now lived through three hurricanes: Irma, Maria, and the death of my son.” Castillo’s 40-ish year old son had just died of Leptospirosis. Before Hurricane Maria arrived, his son had gotten a simple cut in his skin. After the storm, while working in his father’s coffee farm, he was exposed to the animal waste bacteria that contaminated the floodwaters. The bacteria entered his bloodstream more quickly than usual because of the cut, and with no antibiotics to fight the infection, he was dead within 48 hours. One of hundreds.

Cut off from all news sources, Puerto Ricans had to rely on word of mouth to know when help might arrive and how to meet it. The culture here was already very warm, friendly, and family oriented, but Pastor Lou observed that the loss of cell service (in addition to the power and water loss) drew neighbors together even closer than before as they shared the high-value commodity of information. There was live, face-to-face sharing of loss and trauma; the sharing of comfort.

Servant Evangelism

After making sure they had individually survived the hurricane, these pastors shook off the shock and went to work pastoring their communities. Pastor Lou shared about a neighborhood near him that backed up to a river. “They endured hurricane damage with major flooding sweeping through after that. Many people lost everything. No light, no water. They had big time needs.” Pastor Lou asked his brand-new La Viña congregation of five families, “Who wants to go to this neighborhood with me?” So many people were ready to get out and help, even the teenagers. When they arrived they witnessed horror story after horror story. The families were trying to clean mud and sewage out of their homes—those who still had homes—but with no running water, they had to try to collect rainwater to scrub with. Beds, furniture, and refrigerators, almost unrecognizable, lay in stinking heaps in yards that may or may not have belonged to them. The La Viña teams would talk to people, and they could only cry. The team members just listened and prayed for them and cried with them. “Neighbor loving neighbor has a different definition for us now,” said Pastor Lou.

Chicken Burritos And Water. Assessing after the first outreach, the La Viña Agua Viva members asked, “What can we possibly do against such need? What do we have?” They started gathering items that had survived and ended up collecting enough to make some chicken burritos to give away. (This is not a traditional Puerto Rican dish, but those were the ingredients that God provided for them to give away). They also had some cases of water, which was a miracle because no one gave away water. Everyone hoarded it! One La Viña member had a generator, and they used it to chill the water. It came to be a “giant blessing, unheard of” to give away chilled water to comfort and refresh people, and very appropriate for it to come from a Vineyard whose name translates to “Water of Life.” “We felt like it (the chicken burritos and water) was nothing against the need, but this is what we have, and we’re gonna give it away,” Pastor Lou said. The teens in his congregation that went out, came back crying. “I handed a man a burrito and water and he started crying,” someone said. A burrito meant the world.

“You’re the first people who gave us water. Who are you guys?” One man in a devastated neighborhood asked.

“We are just lovers of Jesus who love you,” was the reply he received (from someone at La Viña who had obviously gone through Vineyard Servant Evangelism/Outreach 101 and had the easy language down pat).

These are not mega churches giving out of their abundance. Remember, Lou’s new church had five regular families. These items given in outreaches were given, like the widow gave to Elijah, out of their own great need.

Inevitable Gas Lines. Gas became imperative and lines to the pumps quickly circled the block. People needed not to fill up car tanks, but to fill jerry cans for their generators to function. Uncoincidentally, one of those gas lines of people ran right in front of Pastor Marvin’s house. God brought captive people in need to his front lawn, making servant evangelism the unquestioned agenda. To start, they got ahold of some Capri Sun drink pouches and cookies to give away. (Another funny God-provision story: The cookies were Girl Scout cookies leftover. The secular organization had donated hundreds and hundreds of boxes of unsold cookies to Puerto Rico in the weeks before the Maria was a threat. Talk about a quality provision of comfort food!) As La Viña members walked around handing out refreshments, people in line asked, “How much?” “It’s free. God loves you,” they responded, giving people a reassurance they were desperate for. Some burst into tears not able to believe people were giving away their precious supplies.

The next layer of outreach to the people standing in the gas lines began when money began to flow into Puerto Rico from individual Vineyard (and other) churches and organizations. Of course cash was hard to come by locally, because ATMs were non-functional—they need electricity, and they only hold so much cash before needing replenishing. But Vineyard church teams brought cash. The La Viñas were able to place in hand $5 per person for generator gas. Pastor Marvin said, “There was prayer and crying and it was a great outreach made possible by the Vineyard. Puerto Ricans were in awe that people who didn’t know them would give them cash. Now,” Marvin continued with a chuckle, “we are very good friends with the gas station owner.” Blessings multiplied everywhere.

That station owner brought to the La Viña’s attention a lady who lost her husband in the hurricane and came to the station with no money to purchase gas. “We offered her $20 instead of the usual $5. She really did not want to take it! It was hard for a lot of people to receive,” Marvin said. Then he added with a laugh, “but I used my pastoral skills to make her take it.”

How Vineyards Blessed Puerto Rico After The Initial Crisis Days

In the early days, the La Viñas had trouble accessing goods and services because of communication and transportation issues, downed trees, downed power lines, non-functional traffic signals, accidents, and closed roads. Once shipping ports reopened, roads were cleared, and limited power was restored, blessings and goods from the nations began arriving.

Finances, goods, and teams of responders came from individuals, Vineyard churches, other churches, and from Vineyard USA. Puerto Rico is part of the VUSA Florida Region, and Florida Regional Leader Kevin Fischer first requested financial relief funds on a national level. Then his congregation (Miami Vineyard) provided additional funds for a much-needed Pastors’ Retreat in November of 2017. Bubba Justice, Vineyard USA National Coordinator, asked Ray Maldonado to be Vineyard’s point person for properly collecting, distributing, and accounting for the donations that were pouring in. The Puerto Rico Vineyard Missions Partnership, led by Ray, not only gave, coordinated, and distributed funds, but they also sent Curtis Welch. Curtis is from Jesus Church in Riverside, Florida and also works with Vineyard Mercy Response. Curtis managed the Mayaguez’ Basecamp for the initial three months of the crisis and recovery period. Ray called Curtis, “a key person in the relief efforts.”

Pastor Marvin said, “I am more proud of the Vineyard than ever. We felt loved by so many of our churches. The support from Syracuse (NY) Vineyard, Miami (FL) Vineyard, and Jesus Church (FL) was great. Boise (ID) Vineyard ended up bringing about half of the 130 volunteers that came to help us physically. We did not have much of a previous relationship with Columbus Vineyard (OH), but they kept giving and giving. Anything we needed, all we had to do was ask. In 2-3 days it would show up! Our fellow Vineyard pastors and churches have been such a blessing to us.”

In the initial crisis and in the on-going rebuilding efforts, “The Vineyard teams that came (as well as friends of the Vineyard), worked from 8 to 8; it was a blessings to have them.” Pastor Marvin said. “We had to ignore the rules of the basecamp sometimes, to finish the work before rain came. The teams were awesome! We could see their heart of desiring to bless the people of Puerto Rico, even if they couldn’t speak a word of Spanish!”

The Crisis The Enemy Planned For Destruction, God Used For Good

God used Maria. “Churches were calling us ‘out of the blue’ to offer funds and help. Vineyard and non-Vineyard alike,” Pastor Lou said. Christians in Puerto Rico were the first ones reaching out. Churches across denominational lines began to unite by November. God began to develop Kingdom unity in cities and communities around Puerto Rico! This was so prevalent that even FEMA leaders took notice. In a private meeting with faith-based churches and ministries in December, FEMA said, “The bottom line is no one is doing anything but the faith-based organizations. You guys are the first responders.” The local governments joined with the larger FEMA drive and began to organize the faith-based efforts to work tighter in unison because they were actually getting works accomplished.

This summer (2018), that unified association of faith-based entities, called Love and Hope Refuge in English, asked Pastor Lou to lead as president of the association going forward. They will not be limited to just hurricane relief as the recovery continues. Lou said, “I came to Puerto Rico to plant a church because of a need. The need has not changed. It has just been highlighted by Maria.”

Three Long-term Issues Begin to Loom

Coffee Crops. “When Hurricane Maria hit…it wiped out more than three-quarters of the island's small agricultural sector overnight,” reported the NPR. [2]  Not only did the coffee plantations lose most of the 2017 harvest, which peaked late last year, but the trees left undamaged by wind shear received too much rain and many lost their grip on the soil and toppled over. All of those coffee trees will have to be replanted from sprouts and seedlings. One of the coffee plantation owners interview for the NPR story estimated it will be 3 to 4 years before we expect any kind of a decent crop from the new trees. Mr. Castillo, the man who lost his son to a cut and Leptospirosis, is from one of the devastated coffee-growing mountain communities. According to Pastor Marvin, about 90% of his plantation of coffee, bananas, and plantains was destroyed. But by the last week in November, even in the midst of his grief, Mr Castillo had completed his replanting process!

Migration. As you might expect, and as history has dictated over and over, when a region is devastated by war, persecution, or weather phenomena, people who are mobile or people with children to support pack up their households and migrate to find stability elsewhere. “It feels like a mass exodus,” Pastor Lou said. “So many young families are leaving.” Most appear to be migrating to the U.S., where they enjoy full rights as U.S. citizens (as do citizens of all U.S. Territories). Those who remain are asking, “Are they ever coming back?” If not, this migration projects huge implications for coming generations; Puerto Rico’s population and economy could suffer long-term negative effects.

School Closings. Whether or not storm damage had an impact on the high number of schools closing their doors, Pastor Lou mentioned that there have been hundreds of schools closed because of lack of funding. A particular school he knows of has swelled to three times its normal capacity because of all the closings. The children have to go somewhere and are now extremely overcrowded.

School supplies have been hard to come by for some families as school gets started back this year. A social worker coordinating with Pastor Lou is planning to give out backpacks of school supplies as a community outreach. Seventy stuffed backpacks have been donated. These gifts have come from organizations and churches, Vineyard and non-Vineyard. The social worker has supplied the names of 50 children who are ready to receive them already.

Next Layer Of Need

When asked how the individual churches of the Vineyard Movement could continue supporting and helping, Pastors Marvin and Lou were of the same mind in separate conversations. “More than anything, people need to know God loves them. That is the prayer. They need hope and assurance that God is still there.”

Trauma Of Loss. The day-to-day reality Puerto Ricans have been living this past year has used up every bit of emotional margin they may have once built up. They are trauma fatigued; and they need rest, relaxation, and time away to refocus on something different. Yet there are homes still in need of roofs. Building materials ordered months earlier do trickle in, but by the time they are available, the mold has increased and the studs and joists have rotted away to a soggy mess so that they can no longer be repaired. Sometimes, then the whole structure needs to be razed, which means more labor, more materials to be ordered, more skilled contractors’ waiting lists to join. Hope returns only to be sucked away again. It is exhausting.

Pastor Lou said, “We have to remind ourselves that we are still pastors, not just relief workers. We need a time of recovery. We need to move out of survivor mode. Teams that may still want to help could come and pour in soaking prayer, restorative Holy Spirit moments, and deep worship. We need soaking time with our Savior more than unskilled labor—though” he was quick to add, “skilled labor and contractors or money to hire local skilled contractors and boost the economy are all welcome as well!”

The federal government is funding crisis management training for the Love and Hope Refuge leaders. They will learn practical helps for dealing with mental health. “You forget what it feels like to not live in survivor mode. After 6-8 months of that, you finally start to take care of yourself again, then you realize you’re not all there.” Pastor Lou described. “You’re losing sleep, experiencing high anxiety. The kids start crying when it rains. People who experienced horror stories of flooding or couples who floated on their mattresses staring at the ceiling or sky, not knowing if they would be rescued are dealing with the aftermath of depression and loss of hope,” he said. “We forget, as leaders, what it means to live; everybody forgets. As we approach the one year anniversary we will be coming together to celebrate not just our survival but the thriving through Maria we have experienced,” Pastor Lou stated.

Future Dreams

Pastor Marvin has already begun to dream again (an excellent sign of a positive mental health track). He knows that God is calling the Puerto Rican La Viñas to be more outwardly focused than ever. “We need to be prepared to be first responders,” he said. There is no food bank on their side of the island. They now want to open one and store food and supplies for people in need and in the case of another disaster. Pastor Marvin has scouted out some empty government-owned warehouses that he would like to put to use, and his town has a compassionate mayor that people in La Viña are familiar with. They are hoping to partner with the mayor to bring this food bank from dream to reality.

“We also want to have a more permanent crisis center in our church. We are looking to the future--that’s where the focus is now.” Marvin said. “A clean water well, a food pantry, a big generator.” The generator they have now powers their whole church each week because it is cheaper to use than electricity. Pastor Marvin wrapped up the dreams for the future of Puerto Rico’s La Viñas, “We want to function well and provide for our whole community. We are looking for more efficient ways to work with agencies, other sister churches, and governments. Each Vineyard church facility on the island needs to be in ‘first responder’s shape.’ That is our focus now. Sharing Jesus and being prepared.”

To arrange support (financial or spiritual) for Puerto Rico’s La Viñas as they continue to rebuild, please contact Pastor Marvin Suarez at lavinamayaguez@gmail.com.


By Kim Frolander

Marvin Suarez, Pastor of Iglesia La Viña De Mayaguez est. 2000
Lou Irizarry, Pastor of La Viña de Agua Viva est. Jan 2017