Six weeks after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is notable for what it still does not have: adequate drinking water, electricity and about 73,000 former residents who have fled the island since the Sept. 20 storm.
Previous coverage: These NC Baptists haven’t forgotten Puerto Rico
Janet and Scott Daughtry of Selma, who have been leading a team of volunteers in Puerto Rico for the N.C. Baptist Men and Women on Mission since early October, say their experience there has been unlike others they have had with the Cary-based relief group.
“If this were North Carolina or Florida, you would see power company trucks all over the place and workers trying to get the power back on,” Janet Daughtry said by phone Thursday evening. “Here, there are still poles down, and lines everywhere. You have to step over them on the road, or go under them. And you don’t see anybody working on any of it.”
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Hurricane Maria knocked out power to all 3.4 million of the island’s residents and only 30 percent of customers have had power restored. The work has been hampered by the severity of the damage, the island’s isolation and the financial problems of the local power utility.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is leading the federal power restoration effort, said this week that it plans to boost the size of a contract to a company working to restore power on the island from $600 million to $840 million, pending available funds, to try to speed the process, according to a Reuters report. The reports says about 400 subcontracting crews are working on the island, and officials want to have 1,000 crews on the job by Nov. 8.
The Baptist mission group, using rotating teams with a total of about 20 people at a time, is based for now in a church in San Juan with teams going out each day to remove debris from homes and to distribute clean drinking water and purification systems.
The church, built in 1899, has a gas stove for cooking and a generator that runs – when it’s working – at night to power a fan and allow workers to recharge their phones. Volunteers come to the church to prepare hundreds of meals each day, Janet Daughtry said, which are delivered to people in the community who can’t easily get out of their homes. With no refrigeration, nearly everything is prepared from canned goods, she said.
The church is in the heart of the city, a couple of blocks from the University of Puerto Rico, and Daughtry said walking around the neighborhood at night is surreal.
“No lights in buildings, no street lights, no traffic lights,” Daughtry wrote in a post on the Baptist group’s Facebook page. “Only the sounds of many coqui (small tree frogs that are everywhere) and the occasional hum of a generator and the murmur of voices as people sat out on their steps visiting and trying to catch a little breeze.”
Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, had all the conveniences of any first-world locale before the storm. But with no electricity, Daughtry said, “It’s as if time has stepped back a few generations.”
Local schools and the University of Puerto Rico have reopened, though some of its dormitories are uninhabitable and the generators provide just enough power to light the hallways.
Daughtry said the N.C. Baptists have taken water purification systems to the schools so students can have safe water to drink. They consist of two blue buckets. Untreated water is poured into one bucket, flows through a filter that removes 99 percent of bacteria, and is captured in the second. The group has distributed hundreds of the systems, she said.
Still, she said, access to safe drinking water is a major issue, with the island under instructions to boil water, even if it comes from a tap, and with many residents unable to do so because they have no electricity.
At least 73,000 people have left the island, most of them to stay with friends or relatives in the United States, according to a report from CNN. Some have landed in North Carolina.
“It is a sad theme here. … People leaving …many with no plans for returning,” Daughtry wrote. “Families are being separated. Just this morning at worship, five families/persons announced they are leaving this week. One young man, who plays saxophone for services and whose wife sings in the chorus, has taken a job in Charlotte and leaves Tues. The music director here is leaving on Saturday to teach at a Seminary in Houston. One lady is returning to Panama as a missionary. Another a teenage boy received a Swimming Scholarship and is leaving for Arizona. One lady is going to CT to live with her son. Five church members have died since we arrived. This exodus is causing stress on the local churches as their membership and resources drop and they are all working so hard to assist their communities.”
Daughtry, who will leave Puerto Rico this weekend, said it’s not clear when volunteers will be able to move from cleanup work to rebuilding.
“We’re still discussing that,” she said. “We’re not there yet.”
If you would like to donate to the N.C. Baptists on a Mission, visit their website.