Many of you have heard by now of the powerful earthquakes which have been shaking the island of Puerto Rico in the past few days. We have had over 400 quakes in the same relative area since just after Christmas, seemingly growing in size and intensity every day. Yesterday morning at around 4:30 A.M we were shaken awake by a powerful 6.4 magnitude earthquake which struck off the south coast of the island, near a town called Guayanilla which is a short distance away (15 minutes or so by car) from Ponce. At about 7 AM we were hit by a second quake, this time of a 6.0 magnitude which when combined with the first quake caused some significant damage in Ponce and closer to the epicenter in Guaynilla, Guanica, Indios, and Yauco.
Immediately following the first major earthquake we activated our disaster plan and began calling team members in Mayaguez church members in both locations to check on everyone’s well-being. Thanks to God’s grace and protection, all of our congregation members are well and none of them suffered damages beyond broken plates or wall-hangings. In the morning as soon as the sun came up, we made an exploratory visit to the church to check on how the building withstood the quake, things seemed mostly ok, but a concerning crack appeared on the back side of the multi-purpose room we had set up and have been using as a sanctuary. This is the only space we have been able to habilitate so far in the new building. Because of the crack and aftershocks, we made the decision not to enter the building.
Once we had verified that our primary group was well, we began to check on neighbors and were able to spend the first set of aftershocks together with our new neighbors in Ponce (we moved to a different house in December). We began hearing rumors of some significant damage downtown, and I received a phone call from a member that the street the church is on was closed because of collapsed buildings. This had not been the case when we did our initial check, so we assume that the collapse happened during the second, 6.0 quake. At this point we also learned that one man in Ponce had been killed from a collapsed wall. The news also was that the road between Ponce and Mayaguez was blocked and that we would not be able to reach each-other without traveling north through San Juan, about a 5 hour drive.
At around noon we connected with our regional team, currently meeting in Belize and talked through our next steps. Immediately afterwards I travelled to the fire department and presented myself as the local Lutheran pastor and missionary ready and able to help. They were very receptive and brought me around to the different coordination centers so that I could pray for and talk to the dispatch teams and police officers. From there they sent me to connect with the municipality who was trying to set up a refugee center in a stadium across town. Christel and I stopped by the church again to gather materials based on what we perceived to be needs, and at that point could see the significant changes that the second quake had brought to the situation.
Rubble covered the street to the church from walls that had fallen off some neighboring buildings, and some of the large apartment buildings (1 being the senior center) were cracked and the fire department was urging evacuation for residents. There are concerns that some of these large buildings could completely collapse. The cracks in the wall at church were much larger, confirming that we should not enter the building without an inspection, but fortunately the majority of our disaster supplies are stored in the CARD (our Disaster Response and Mercy House) center which is not set up yet with water or electricity but appears to have suffered minimal damage. We loaded the car up with tables, mercy literature, coloring books, a mic and speaker that operate on battery power, and whatever we could think of that might be useful.
Before leaving for the camp, we went to check on the elderly living facility where we do our weekly visits on Calle Campeche. It was heartbreaking to see the large cracks running up and down the front of the building, and we asked around to be told that the residents had been moved to the refugee center.
When we arrived at the center we saw people everywhere sleeping in their cars, sitting in circles with shocked and tired expressions, and generally disorganized. At this point the only organization was being handled by one of the municipality workers who was heroically managing a disaster response center from scratch without much support. She had a handful of volunteers who were staff at the municipality office, but the situation was very complicated. The original plan had been to house people in the basketball stadium which had a roof, but the stadium had been damaged and was structurally unsound, and with the risk of additional quakes, it was no longer an option. The next plan was to put up tarps and have people sleep in the open in the baseball stadium, but with unseasonable heavy rains this whole last week, this did not seem like a good option either. Most people at the camp had come from buildings which were now deemed to be unsafe to enter, and would likely be living there for weeks.
We found the people from the elderly center and were able to spend some time visiting and counselling, relationships that had been built over the past few months allowed us to have the trust to listen to their stories and share Christ’s love. More and more people poured into the camp as time went on, and we set up some tables and began doing a small impromptu VBS for the adults and kids. A volunteer nurse showed up and used one of our tables for taking blood pressure and checking on people. In another area, one of the municipal workers did a magic show! I was able to hand out mercy devotionals and talk to families who had lost everything, as well as pray with small groups of people who were hurting. Everyone was waiting for 4:00 when they were told they would be moved into the stadium, but this never ended up happening. A community leader from an evacuated Residencial in Ponce Playa gathered a large group together and asked me to give a message and lead them in prayer, so I did a brief sermon on Psalm 46 and we prayed together, thankful that we had brought our mic and speaker for the large group, some tv station was there and recorded it, so it might have gone on tv. Throughout the process we developed a good relationship with the municipal workers and gathered information on needs that could be filled by our support team. Surprisingly, we were the only church-workers present, and the only congregation involved.
The national guard arrived at about 5:30 and they overruled the plan to move people into the baseball stadium. This is probably for the best, but it meant that the new location that had been chosen, a vocational school down the road, was not the least bit prepared for conversion into a refugee center, and it was now getting dark. Many of the people had been at the stadium since early in the morning and were very tired. The national guard and some leadership from San Juan used our mic and speaker to make the announcements! The municipal leaders confided in me that they did not have sufficient food or water for the people that were coming, and had been making tuna burritos by hand to try to have something to give. At this point our Mayaguez teammates, Pastor Gustavo Maita and Project Manager James Krey went into action and braved the long lines in Mayaguez and then a treacherous road to Ponce (now cleared) to get us a car load of supplies. While we waited for them we worked to keep people calm, and helped try to set up the refugee center basically from scratch. Even with the national guard, there were only about 20 workers, so we were scrambling to get things done. There was no electricity at the vocational school, so we were working from emergency lights. One example project was drying off a gymnasium floor with about a half an inch of water on it with brooms and mops so that it would be ready for people to sleep on. There were not remotely enough beds, and most people need to sleep on the floor. For some reason at this point I pulled my phone out of my pocket to find that it had completely erased itself and all my contacts and was trying to reinstall its operating system!! Fortunately, Christel still had hers and I can restore it from a backup later this week, but it was just one more element of chaos!
When the car from Mayaguez showed up there was a lot of rejoicing, because according to our plan we had purchased not only water but things like granola bars, fruit cups, wipes, diapers (adult and baby), and ensure beverages for the elderly. I spent some time with the mayor of Ponce and her staff and prayed with her. At about the same time a van showed up from San Juan with supplies from the municipality there. We worked to distribute in person the products for the elderly, because the coordinator was most concerned about “this group from Campeche (and Mayor) Elderly tower”. It is amazing that God prepared our care for them so far in advance!
We stuck around late into the night making sure people were settling down, and then went to check on a member who needed some food to eat, gave a small message and prayer for his neighbors who were outside sleeping in the parking lot and terrified, and then made it back to the house at around 11:00pm. Despite wanting to sleep as much as possible to get back to the refugee camp well rested, it has been hard to sleep because of continuing aftershocks, so I got up and wrote this update!
The plan today is to bring another haul from Mayaguez and to spend the day with the people at the refugee center. Bible study is canceled, but I am inviting the people who would have come to join us at the center to help out. It is difficult to keep everyone informed during the day so we ask that you are patient and I will try to get updates like this out as I can. It is entirely possible that the big quakes aren’t over yet, so we are not yet out of the initial response phase. Our area Facilitator Charles St. Onge is the point person for coordinating outside support if you would like to help (he is also connected to the awesome team at LCMS Disaster Response), please contact him with any questions and be patient as we identify the needs and the best ways that people can be of help. You can write to him at Charles.firstname.lastname@example.org.