Downed power lines are seen Oct. 24 in Las Marias, Puerto Rico, more than one month after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. CNS photo/Bob Roller

Downed power lines are seen Oct. 24 in Las Marias, Puerto Rico, more than one month after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. CNS photo/Bob Roller

From Staff Reports 

James King, director of the Office of Social Concerns for the New Jersey Catholic Conference – the public policy arm of the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey – is currently in Puerto Rico in support of Catholic Charities USA’s relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Following is a firsthand report from what he is witnessing while in the storm-ravaged country:

“Things are moving here in Puerto Rico. After arriving last Tuesday, Oct. 17, the CCUSA team spent the first three days meeting with Caritas of Puerto Rico staff. (Catholic Charities in Puerto Rico is called Caritas.)

“These meetings revealed four areas that we are focusing on, including: establishing health clinics at diocesan parishes, disaster case management, receiving and distributing in-kind donations and meeting mental health counseling needs. Additionally, we have been asked by FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] to identify housing for FEMA workers through the Catholic Church retreat centers in the remote areas of the island.

“The past four days, the CCUSA team traveled the mountainous region of the island scouting Catholic retreat centers. In the places where we traveled, the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria is still visible. There are downed wires; landslides have destroyed homes, and there is extensive damage to trees and vegetation.  

“Only 20 percent of the population continues to have power, but this is mostly reflective of hotels and hospitals. FEMA states power will likely not be fully restored until late January/early February next year. My apartment has lost power several times. The power will come on for a couple of hours, then go off for days.

“Also, communications prove to be a challenge. Cellular service and internet have improved, but are still inconsistent. As you drive the highways, you notice many residents parked on the side of the road attempting to get cell service.

“As we continue the work, in sometimes very challenging conditions, the need continues to grow and the demand for CCUSA expertise and assistance increases,” he wrote.

In addition, Kim Burgo, senior director at Catholic Charities USA for Disaster Operations, also spoke of what she and King had experienced in an Oct. 24 email she sent to Patrick Brannigan, NJCC executive director.

“The need here in Puerto Rico is great, and the demand for assistance by the Catholic Church increases daily,” she wrote. “Our first days last week were spent in meetings obtaining assessments, learning the players, etc. The true work began Saturday as we ventured out of San Juan to explore the rest of the island. The damage is extensive, the losses are incalculable, and the needs of individuals and families – who were already challenged with poverty and are now living in extreme conditions – is tremendous.”  

Check back to throughout the week for more updates from King’s experience in Puerto Rico.