A week after being hit by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico begs for help; Catholic Charities USA, Knights among agencies sending aid

By Catholic News Service
Thursday, September 28, 2017

Displaced people fill containers with water Sept. 26 in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The Knights of Columbus and other agencies announced they are sending aid to Puerto Rico, which is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. (CNS photo/Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters)

More than a week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, much of the island remained without communication and in desperate need of humanitarian aid.
News programs have been broadcasting about long lines of travelers, who have little food or water, and are desperate to get off the island at the San Juan airport to no avail. 

But the scene of destruction outside the airport is even more stark: An island whose dense tropical landscape, along with its infrastructure, towns and cities, has been greatly stripped by winds that reached 155 mph.

Catholic Church groups have mobilized to send help. Catholic Charities USA has sent $1 million in emergency aid to Caritas Puerto Rico, the Catholic Charities agency on the island, and the Knights of Columbus is including Puerto Rico in its expanded emergency relief outreach to areas hit hard by recent natural disasters.

Dominican Sister Donna Markham, CEO of Catholic Charities USA, is making plans to go to Puerto Rico as soon as it is possible, according to the agency.

Some organizations, however, have reported problems mobilizing the aid out of airports and into the places and people who need them.

Officials say Hurricane Maria left 16 dead in Puerto Rico, 27 dead in Dominica and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But accurate information has been hard to come by since cellphone service and electricity, along with access to water and fuel, have been knocked out. Many roads into rural areas still are blocked by debris, making it difficult to access those who live there.

"There's a humanitarian emergency here in Puerto Rico. This is an event without precedent," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a statement. He has called for additional assistance from the U.S. government as residents deal with not just the loss of power but a lack of drinkable water, fuel and numerous necessities.

Funds from Catholic Charities USA will assist Caritas Puerto Rico as it begins the work of recovery, a spokeswoman for the agency told Catholic News Service Sept. 27. The Alexandria, Virginia-based national network of Catholic Charities agencies collected the money from thousands of donors across the United States in response to damage done by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

The Knights of Columbus, based in New Haven, Connecticut, has raised more than $2.8 million as part of an ongoing national appeal "that builds on the donations and relief work of Knights themselves."

In a Sept. 26 news release, the organization said it donated $100,000 to Puerto Rico to aid victims of Maria and an additional $100,000 to Mexico for victims of the earthquakes that have struck that country.

Many Puerto Ricans in the mainland U.S. have been making desperate pleas on social media to see if others can give them information about relatives or conditions in town or cities where their relatives live but which remain without communication.

President Donald Trump is set to visit Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.4 million, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands on Oct. 3. He has largely been criticized for what some perceive as a slow humanitarian response and for spending time tweeting against athletes as Puerto Rico suffered. But when he got around to tweeting about the island's misery, he also offended many by bringing up its debt, including debt to Wall Street, as well as the island's pre-existing failing infrastructure.

It took a week for the U.S. to send a plane carrying 3,500 pounds of water as well as food and other supplies to the island, but the president said, "It's on an island in the middle of the ocean. ... You can't just drive your trucks there from other states."

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters Sept. 26 that that badly damaged airports and seaports are making it difficult to get aid and personnel to Puerto Rico.

Long said 16 Navy and Coast Guard ships were currently in the waters around the island and that thousands more U.S. military personnel and 10 more ships have been dispatched to offer help, including a Navy hospital ship, the USS Comfort.

Scarcity of food, water and fuel is rampant. The deaths of two patients in intensive care at a San Juan hospital were blamed on lack of fuel.

On Sept. 27, the Trump administration said it would not waive shipping restrictions to get fuel and supplies to island, angering politicians such as U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who asked the Department of Homeland Security to waive the restrictions known as the Jones Act.

In a tweet sent the morning of Sept. 28, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Donald Trump had authorized the restrictions to be waived for Puerto Rico at the request of Rosselló. 

Many, such as New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, are in the meantime offering Masses as well collecting donations to help in a long recovery ahead for Puerto Rico.

Cardinal Dolan will celebrate a Mass in Spanish at St. Patrick's Cathedral Oct. 8, to "express prayerful solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico and Mexico -- and their relatives and friends in New York -- in the wake of the natural disasters that have ravaged both lands this month," according to an article in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York.



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  • puerto rico

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