SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico is racing the clock to rebuild for the 2018 hurricane season, which begins June 1. A key partner in its preparations: the local church and faith-based groups.
The government of Puerto Rico is well aware of the partnership. Hector Albertorio, who oversees faith-based initiatives for Gov. Ricardo Rossello, told CBN News the help from the faith community started right when Hurricane Maria struck last fall.
"Churches and faith-based groups they have been really great. They were first in line when the storm hit," he said.
Maria, a Category 4 storm, caused more than $100 billion in damage when it tore through the island on Sept. 20. It flooded the territory, destroyed businesses and knocked out 80 percent of Puerto Rico's power grid.
Rolando Torres fishes and lives in Toa Baja on the island's northern coast. Maria destroyed his home and most of his neighbors' homes as well. "Everything changed," he told CBN News in an emotional interview.
In San Juan, Gabriel Prada pastors the Baptist Mission church and remembers a small army of pastors and believers spreading out to check on their communities in the aftermath of Maria.
"The first responders were really not the government," he told CBN News. "It was the pastors, young church planters, all over the place working together."
"They were like troops on the ground," said Albertorio. "They were searching for people. They were helping. They were distributing food that they already had."
The needs after the storm were massive. Compounding the problem, a territory that was already in the midst of an economic crisis and struggling to restructure part of its $70 billion public debt load.
Puerto Rico Today
Today, the island can best be described as fragile. Even in San Juan, the destruction from Maria is still evident. Homes across the city have only a tarp for a roof and one can see buildings crushed by the storm that have not been cleared let alone rebuilt.
Across the island, downed power lines tell the story of continuing electrical problems. At least 80,000 homes and businesses remain in the dark more than six months after the hurricane.
The government of Puerto Rico believes the US government has ripped it off. "We are being treated as second-class citizens," says Albertio. "I guarantee you, if Massachusetts [or] Florida had a power outage like we had in Puerto Rico, in three months tops it would be 100 percent again."
Maria of course was the third major hurricane to hit the US in the space of one month last fall, and FEMA officials have argued that Puerto Rico received an equal amount of attention, although an investigation by Politico shows otherwise.
Quickly Approaching Hurricane Season = Urgent Need
This slow recovery and the time crunch presented by the quickly approaching 2018 hurricane season have created an even more urgent need that churches and faith-based groups have worked to meet. Without them, many like Rolando Torres and his family would have nowhere to turn.
In Torre's neighborhood, many have struggled to rebuild their homes because most residents don't have the correct paperwork to show that they own their property. It's an issue across the island. Without that paperwork, FEMA assistance is difficult to obtain. But Operation Blessing, a US-based faith-based non-profit, has rebuilt a new home for Torres and many of his neighbors. Without the help, Torres said he and his family would be living in the streets.
In other communities, Operation Blessing is supplying water filters to purify contaminated drinking water. It has distributed more than 40,000 already.
— Operation Blessing (@operationbless) April 2, 2018
Food, Water, Power All Still Needed Across Puerto Rico
Local churches like Pastor Prada's continue to distribute food and water to those without work or struggling with illness.
Across the island, mission teams from the mainland are working to rebuild roofs. David Melber, the president of Send Relief, a humanitarian arm of the Southern Baptist's North American Mission Board, says he's seen tremendous interest from young people. "I think alot of people are really getting a heart for Puerto Rico and saying 'we want to be here and be involved,'" he said.
Send Relief hopes to send hundreds of people to the island in the next two to three years. That kind of help, says the government, will have not only a profound effect on Puerto Rico's ability to rebuild but on its ability to emotionally restore as well. It's no secret that many islanders have struggled with depression and mental health issues in Maria's aftermath.
Albertorio calls the church and faith-based groups "our extended arms." He says the help is invaluable.
"They help us with a word of faith, with a word of hope and they help not only to reconstruct the material side," he said, "they help to reconstruct the spiritual side, the emotional side and that's a home run for us."
That home run is desperately needed as islanders get ready for the 2018 hurricane season, one that forecasters already predict will be a tough one.
BELOW: "They are angels that came to our home." WATCH OPERATION BLESSING Help a Family in Puerto Rico