A horse stands tied near a destroyed concrete house in Puerto Rico. Many concrete homes fared better than wooden homes during Hurricane Maria, but overflowing, rushing rivers caught houses like the one above.

Fighting to Stay Afloat in Puerto Rico

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September 19, 2017: In a brightly painted room in New Jersey, Cru® staff member Tabitha Morales gazes at a large TV screen showing a weather map of the Caribbean.

“We’re dealing with another Category 5 in just a matter of weeks,” the meteorologist says. “We haven’t seen two Category 5s in a row since 2007, and this one is on a beeline to perhaps devastate Puerto Rico … So again, there’s no good news out of this.”

Puerto Ricans were about to endure a storm unlike anything the U.S. territory had ever seen before. And for those trusting in Christ, their faith in God was about to be tested.

The long, loud night

September 20: The island went dark.

Wow, this is going to be bad, Michael Diaz thought when the power cut out at 3:45 a.m.

Michael Diaz explores rubble in the city of Ponce, named after the first governor of Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria obliterated buildings in cities along the island’s coast.

Along with much of Puerto Rico, Michael — a 23-year-old studying biomedical science at the University of Puerto Rico at Ponce — and his family didn’t prepare for Hurricane Maria. Two weeks earlier, Hurricane Irma wasn’t as bad on the island as predicted. Irma cried wolf.

Now, Michael, his mother, father and older brother dragged mattresses into their home’s hallway and tried to sleep.

For the next 24 hours, 100-mph winds battered their concrete house. But with the sound of trees snapping, the front door rattling and the wind roaring like a busy trainyard, sleep escaped them.

A tree crushed a house near the beach in San Juan, the capital, named after John the Baptist.

Just prior to the full blackout, Gabriela Mangual, a student at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, received panicked calls from family and friends from the U.S. mainland. She and several relatives hunkered down.

Outside, winds tore off metal roofs from houses before obliterating wooden walls.

“We just wanted it to be over,” says Gabriela.

Back in New Jersey, Tabitha watched the news as she thought of her family in Puerto Rico. Checking Facebook and texting feverishly with other concerned mainlanders, Tabitha felt an overwhelming urge to be with family in Puerto Rico.

Quiet devastation

September 21: An eerie hush hung over Puerto Rico.

Gabriela walked out the door. Someone’s roof laid in her yard, the ceiling fan still attached. What just happened? she thought.

Hurricane Maria left buildings abandoned and rotting, like the one above, still vacant nine months after the storm.

In Michael’s neighborhood, people wandered the streets in shocked silence. Later, Michael’s church congregation gathered in an old, abandoned supermarket for a worship service.

Tabitha wanted to get to the island as soon as possible to see family and help in any way she could. She scribbled down names and addresses of friends looking for family. Robert Newkirk of Global Aid Network®, the humanitarian arm of Cru, called to ask if she knew of anyone going to help. Tabitha had already booked her flight. GAiN® provided emergency supplies. Phil Floyd, a Cru staff member, and Tabitha’s roommate Kassy Martinez — an affiliate staff member with Cru who has family in Puerto Rico — joined her in Puerto Rico. The three flew on separate days due to the lack of available flights to the main island.

Cru® staff member Tabitha Morales writes in her notebook, full of names and addresses in Puerto Rico. With power out and cellphones down, people on the U.S. mainland tried desperately to make contact with family and relatives and asked Tabitha to check on them while there.

A tough, new normal

Puerto Rico had changed from lush and green to leafless and brown. Michael remembers everything he took for granted — from flowers to oranges — was now gone.

September 25: Five days after the hurricane, Gabriela observed waiting lines everywhere. A two-hour line at the bank. A one-hour line at the supermarket. Lines for gas seemed endless. When she learned about limits on food, gas, batteries and water, she wondered if this would be the new normal. And if so, for how long?

Gabriela Mangual stands in a wrecked church, Iglesia Fuente de Agua Viva, near her home in San Juan. Hurricane Maria caused an estimated $90 billion in damage to Puerto Rico, further adding to its economic woes.

A clean-up crew poses in front of a mangled gas station. With power and communications out across the island, people didn’t know what supplies they’d need to survive the coming weeks, which turned into months. This caused a run on banks, gas stations and grocery stores.

September 30: After a four-hour flight, Tabitha stepped out of the airport. A few days later, once Phil and Kassy joined Tabitha, they drove over electrical wires and around mudslides and boulders. They passed homes swallowed by sinkholes and storm surges. People gathered water from runoff on the side of the road. The three stopped to give them water filters and batteries.

Those on the U.S. mainland couldn’t do much to help in the immediate aftermath. Blocked roads, an outdated power grid and a slow federal response meant that vital aid would take weeks and months to get to the citizens.

One day, Tabitha, Phil and Kassy drove around searching for Tabitha’s grandmother’s property. Nearing it, she saw a man approaching the car.

“I’m Tabitha, the daughter of Anna Morales de Perez. Her tía, Aurora Padilla, used to live here. Do you know them?”

“You’re Anna’s daughter? That’s my cousin!” he continued. “What are you doing here?”

“We’re here as missionaries, trying to help. Tell me what happened.”

His wooden house was flattened. He stood in his only set of clothes.

A survivor’s mentality

Tabitha found Kassy’s grandmother’s white house. Her grandmother had nothing in her cupboards but one loaf of bread and two small cans of potted meat, often called “poor people’s meat.” She insisted on feeding them.

Michael’s city, Utuado, made headline news when a downed bridge cut them off from the rest of the island. They rigged a pulley system to heave necessities across roaring waters.

Michael sits proudly on the bridge he and other church members constructed nearly one year ago, when the original bridge to their church was washed away.

Similarly, a flooding river washed away the only bridge to Michael’s church. He and 12 men from his church took two fallen trees, sheared them and used chains to drag them nearly 300 yards to the river. They were careful not to fall in, as the polluted water could cause infection.

Opportunity in the exhausted land

Present day: More than six months after the tragedy, many places in Puerto Rico remain in shambles. Recovery and rebuilding drag on. Puerto Ricans still drink contaminated water. The elderly and children have a heightened risk for disease.

An early estimate put the death toll under 100. Now a study by George Washington University estimates that the number of deaths has reached nearly 3,000.

Hurricane Maria ravaged Jorge Vazquez’s house. Today, the 83-year-old lives with his neighbor while working to repair his home. One year later, nearly all residents now have power.

A man sits outside his used goods store in Utuado. Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s economy, already suffering with $70 billion in debt.

The amount of customer hours of electricity lost in Puerto Rico due to the ongoing blackout is estimated as the second worst in world history.

The sudden plunge into darkness and mud brought on increased depression. In a place known for sun and color, this depression has contributed to an an increased number of suicides.

“People are hopeless. When it rains heavily and the power goes out, people get scared,” says Gabriela. “The storm season is coming, and we can’t handle a tiny storm. We’re desperate.”

Some cast blame on the federal and local governments, the slowness of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and even God.

“A lot of people are saying this is a punishment for our sins,” says Gabriela. “I don’t see it as punishment. It’s an opportunity for us to reach out more and love our neighbors.”

Though Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans — like those above — have pressed forward to revive the island.

Gabriela works and attends university. She looks for ways to encourage her friends on campus to find Christ. For those who have found Him, she encourages them to hold on.

Since Tabitha’s initial trip, GAiN, in coordination with Cru’s campus ministry, has organized six trips focused on sustainable relief.

Michael assists his pastor in church services and outreach to the community, while he continues to lead the youth group and take classes.

Passionate about talking about Jesus, Michael (right) chats with a man with whom he frequently has spiritual conversations.

Brave new trust

For many of the Puerto Rican students Tabitha worked with from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, the storm created an added urgency for the students to grow in their relationship with God.

“In the heat, in suffering,” says Tabitha, “what God produces through that is often gold, a beautiful thing.”

Tabitha coordinated with Cru®’s humanitarian arm, Global Aid Network®, and raised funds to take supplies to the island.

Gabriela’s parents separated earlier in that summer, and the storm exposed Gabriela’s inner hurt about her family, forcing her to cling to God. As she’s done so, Gabriela realized that she buried her pain in ministry activities. Today she’s focusing on her relationship with God by seeking to listen, read Scripture and rest and delight in Him.

A few weeks after the hurricane, Michael rode his bike urgently searching for food. “We had less and less food, and we didn’t have much water either,” says Michael. “And if we didn’t drink any water, we’d die.”

Michael (right) teaches Sunday school to the youth in his church. At age 23, Michael balances college classes with leading his church’s youth group and assisting his pastor with worship on Sundays.

On a Saturday morning in June, Michael leads members of his youth group through trust exercises. After the storm, Michael took the youth group out to deliver necessities, gather prayer requests and share the gospel with those they met.

So Michael took a chair to his backyard. He sat and read his Bible and Radical by David Platt, asking God to speak to him. Though he still needed to search for food, he realized he was relying solely on himself. But as he read, the thought hit him, This is my time to trust.

Michael continued to work with his pastor to help clean up and serve the people of Utuado. Because of that, Michael’s gratitude for God grew.

Michael stands in front of a vista near his home in Utuado. Floods from Hurricane Maria brought down the major bridge to the region, cutting it off from the rest of the island and putting it in the national news.

“Me dieron en la cara,” says Michael, “I was ‘hit in the face’ with God’s love.”

With the storm season returning and all the fear that surrounds it, Michael’s primary goal is to concentrate on hope in Christ. This focus on God enables Michael to care for his neighbors and fellow Puerto Ricans.

“We get discouraged because we have our eyes on the storm, on the problem, on the circumstances. It’s human,” Gabriela says. “But we remember who God is.”

Gabriela Mangua stands in Old San Juan. Her passion for God has grown while attending the University of Puerto Rico, where she’s helped lead a Christian ministry on campus. “Cru has been a helping hand on campus,” Gabriela says.

Church is family

When Tabitha returned to New Jersey after her trip to Puerto Rico, she and Kassy went to Walgreens. Walking the aisles, they cried. “Puerto Ricans are just as American as we are,” says Tabitha, “and they’re suffering, while we have enough to waste.”

She feels the same today.

“I can’t just sit here in my privilege and do nothing,” says Tabitha. “The Christians in Acts 2 were from all over and they took care of each other; no one had need.”

A worker cleans up after the building crew has finished for the day. The Ricky Martin Foundation — in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and other global allies and local organizations — sponsors this particular rebuilding effort, with plans to build more than 200 homes.

Puerto Rico has nearly 300 beaches, including this beach in San Juan.

A Puerto Rican woman enjoys the breeze at the beach.

Tabitha sees the vital nature of family and community within the church, especially in times of trial.

“When people see the body of Christ caring for each other, loving each other in a familial way, people think, Wow, that’s attractive,” says Tabitha. “That means I’m not only cared for, but I belong. I’m welcomed. I’m being thought of. And I won’t be without.”

Faces of Puerto Rico

How can you specifically help in the recovery?

Gabriela asks that you pray for faith, hope, perseverance, direction and strength as she seeks to rest and delight in God. Pray this for the people in Puerto Rico as well.

Michael asks that you would pray for the hurricane season happening as you read. Pray that God would protect Puerto Ricans and help them not to be anxious and fearful.

Tabitha asks that you pray for the many Puerto Ricans who are still without roofs; for individuals who are suffering financially, emotionally and physically; and for wise preparation as they face future storms.

A grandmother and child escape the heat and watch people in Utuado. Puerto Rico averages about 70 degrees in the mountains and 85 degrees in the lower elevations. With some of the hottest weather hitting the island in September, Hurricane Maria caused an increase in humidity alongside the lack of air conditioning, adding to the humanitarian crisis.

A man stands on his balcony, where a U.S. flag flies next to Puerto Rican flags.

Video created and produced by David Coffey and Jonathan Bereza of Creative1Media, a ministry of Cru®.

Philip Long
Words by

Philip Long

Philip writes for Cru®’s publications as a missionary journalist. He earned a master’s degree in Christian studies at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Philip balances family life along with bike riding, drawing and whittling toy cars.

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Guy Gerrard
Photos by

Guy Gerrard

Guy isn’t much of a city person. Paddling down the Wda river in northern Poland with participants of a Cru® summer mission project describes a great place for him to photograph. He likes being outside, doing anything with water, and he enjoys making things with his hands. Guy serves as a photographer for Cru.

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Read more from the September 2018 issue

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