Hurricane Maria damage severe for Mennonites in Puerto Rico

Oct 10, 2017 by and

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As assessment teams work their way across Puerto Rico, it becomes clear Hurricane Maria damaged Mennonite churches, hospitals and a school to a greater degree than originally understood.

After Maria hit the island Sept. 20, information was slow to trickle out, hampered by massive electrical outages and damage to transportation and communication infrastructure. Weeks later, many regions still lacked access to power, fresh food or reliable water sources.

Hurricane Maria blew the roof off a building, exposing classrooms to the elements, at Academia Menonita Betania in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. — Academia Menonita Betania

Hurricane Maria blew the roof off a building, exposing classrooms to the elements, at Academia Menonita Betania in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. — Academia Menonita Betania

Mennonite Disaster Service executive director Kevin King reported Oct. 8 from Puerto Rico that three of the nine Mennonite churches they were able to contact were destroyed, including the pastors’ homes. There are 18 congregations in all.

His delegation had been visiting the interior since Oct. 3.

“We were able to deliver some Mennonite Central Committee cans of meat, provide an MDS cash grant and flashlights and batteries to each,” he said in a report. “There were tearful hugs and prayers. The pastors are exhausted trying to be strong for their congregants.”

King estimated electricity is only available in some parts of San Juan, leaving 95 percent of the island without electricity or clean water, though gas is becoming more available.

“We have met no strangers here in P.R. Folks are so gracious,” he said. “But how long can that last when you spend most of your day in lines for foods, water, small cash withdrawals from your bank? We are still in life- saving mode, and the rebuilding will happen much later.”

Donations supporting MDS’s work in Puerto Rico can be made at

School’s out

Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Education Agency reported Academia Men­onita Betania in Aibonito was significantly damaged by Hurricane Maria. The pre-K through 10th-grade academy is a Mennonite Education Agency school and a service location for Mennonite Mission Network volunteers.

“Many classrooms received water,” professor Luis Yavier Velez Soto, the school’s director, described in a Sept. 27 Facebook video.

He said some classrooms, though flooded, could still be used structurally, while others could not. Buildings have a range of damage: tin roofing sheets twisted among tree limbs, water puddles beneath desks and chairs, and classrooms that open up into the sky, the entire roof peeled away. The auditorium of one building also lost its roof.

“When you go in there, you just feel a lot of sadness,” he said, “because we know there’s a lot of work that is lost . . . instruments of the children . . . it’s all destroyed.”

King said the school is without water or electricity, but it is “looking to start in several weeks in a makeshift way.”

Donations to support reconstruction efforts at Academia Menonita Betania can be made at

Health assessment

Mennonite Health Services dispatched a team that arrived Oct. 4 to explore how MHS might offer medical and health and human service support.

Sistema de Salud Menonita, the Mennonite hospital system in Puerto Rico, was started in Aibonito and now has facilities in other communities, making it MHS’s largest institution. The base hospital in Aibonito was damaged, but before Oct. 4 it was unclear whether the facility was even functioning. The team learned that more than 100 of the hospital’s employees need to rebuild or replace their homes. Sistema de Salud Menonita has donated $500,000 to support this effort, with a goal to raise an additional $500,000.

An MHS news release stated team leader Rose Gillin was using her skills as a medical physician in tandem with her experience of growing up in Puerto Rico as she worked with teammate Jim Alvarez, CFO and senior vice president of Everence, who also grew up on the island and is a board member of Sistema de Salud Menonita.

Most hospitals are still running on generators, which are now requiring repair after four weeks of continuous use. Access to water is still limited, and there is concern about the safety of the water that is available. Pharmacies are not able to fill prescriptions because they cannot access insurance companies for approval. Diabetic patients are not able to refrigerate their insulin.

MHS is working with Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship to engage health-care professionals to volunteer.

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