In the six months since Hurricane Maria slammed into the island of Puerto Rico, United Church of Christ Disaster Ministries has been providing much needed supplies — hygiene kits, tarps, water filters, food, medical supplies and equipment, batteries and generators — in parts of the island that have been hit the hardest. UCC Executives have also been doing critical work leveraging relationships and resources with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and through the VOAD movement (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) to assist Puerto Rican partners on the ground.
"In the early days and weeks we were able to ship supplies which arrived in the interior of the island within about 4 days, which at the time was unheard of. We were also able to secure an industrial generator for Ryder Hospital's Alzheimer unit which saved the hospital several hundred thousand dollars," said Zach Wolgemuth, UCC Disaster Ministries Executive. But, as he pointed out, the intangible effort of Disaster Ministries is also just as important. "Part of our role is to be a connection point. We help people realize what resources are available to them, to be a voice for them, leverage our connections, donations, and resources to help Puerto Ricans develop a long-term strategic plan for recovery."
Wolgemuth and the Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss, Team Leader of the UCC’s Humanitarian & Development Ministries (One Great Hour of Sharing), spent several days in early March meeting with partners on the island, with long-term recovery planning being the main purpose of the trip.
"One of our key local partners is the former UCC church in Puerto Rico, the Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico (IEUPR)," Wolgemuth continued. "The majority of the IEUPR churches are located in many of the most devastated communities in the southeastern part of the island where Maria made landfall. Through this partnership we aim to not only assist in the recovery efforts but to also build a stronger relationship with our IEUPR sisters and brothers."
The UCC is also working closely with Ryder Hospital and Seminario Evangelico in Puerto Rico.
"We are thrilled about the relationship building between the United Church of Christ (USA) and partner churches and organizations in Puerto Rico made possible by working together in disaster response and recovery," said Schaller Blaufuss. "It has been inspiring to accompany people in Puerto Rico during the early and intermediate response through the creative and hard work of Puerto Rican church members distributing materials made possible by mainland donors and organizational relationships through the UCC. Everywhere that Zach and I traveled on the Island, we were greeted with people telling their stories of these early efforts."
Gifts to the Emergency USA Fund have provided more than $50,000 that supported Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico's purchase of computer equipment, restoration of the data and telecommunications systems, restoration of roofing on student housing and replacement of desks and chairs. Donations also funded an IEUPR project at Ryder Hospital to provide basic medical supplies as well as in-kind support to local families.
Schaller Blaufuss said she was glad to hear from Pastor General of the IEUPR, the Rvdo. Edward Rivera-Santiago, about how the national church in Puerto Rico is willing to be in closer relationship with the UCC in the USA. One important outcome of that is being open to hosting volunteers from the mainland.
"We are now ready to say that we can start getting groups together beginning this summer," Schaller Blaufuss said. "Our visit overlapped with the transition from early response to long-term recovery, and we are going from offering water filters and generators to helping people recover their homes."
Volunteer groups through the UCC (USA) will begin serving in Puerto Rico in June 2018. Registration for those volunteer opportunities will open in mid-April. Groups can sign up now to be notified of when that registration goes "live."
Initially UCC volunteers will be working with IEUPR staff and local churches to aid in construction and cleanup projects of properties owned by the church.
"The primary focus of UCC Disaster Ministries has always been long-term recovery which is always the costliest and often the most challenging phase of any disaster," Wolgemuth said. "The situation in Puerto Rico is especially challenging due to the infrastructure being decimated across the entire island." Power is still out in many areas of Puerto Rico, and Wolgemuth said even in communities where power has been restored, it is still considered intermittent.
Right now, Wolgemuth is working directly with IEUPR leadership to develop a recovery plan/roadmap that will help guide the joint response.
"This plan will include a putting into motion the pieces required to host and manage volunteer work teams, provide emotional and spiritual care support and leverage federal programs that have been uniquely developed for the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico," he said.
Disaster Ministries has identified a long-term volunteer couple committed to serving several months to move the collaborative work along, acting as the liaison between the UCC and the IEUPR Disaster Recovery Coordinator. Disaster Ministries is planning to provide financial support to the IEUPR to hire that coordinator and purchase a vehicle to be used for construction and recovery. "I'm extremely grateful for the outpouring of support by our members and churches," Wolgemuth said. "But I also recognize that we will continue to need financial support to meet local needs for the foreseeable future."
Schaller Blaufuss celebrates the partnerships being forged between the people of the UCC and Puerto Rico. "Now that the long term recovery stage has begun, our church and personal relationships are poised to deepen further as the UCC accompanies the Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico, Ryder Hospital in Humacao, the Seminario Evangelico, and other Global Ministries' partners in recovery toward a just world for all."
Learn more about volunteer opportunities here.
Support the long-term recovery work in Puerto Rico through the Emergency USA Fund.