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Puerto Rico: Not forgotten

12.20. 2017 Written By: Mennonite Health Services release 280 Times read

Carolyn Hoderread Heggen, PhD, returned from Puerto Rico on Dec. 8, after completing an assessment trip sponsored by Mennonite Health Services (MHS) in cooperation with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS).

She reports that, from the air, blue FEMA tarps, piles of debris, and damage to the normally lush landscape are visible effects of Hurricane Maria. Broken stoplights, uprooted trees and ruined household items lining inland roads of San Juan are on-the-ground evidence of the devastating storm.

Many small communities are still without telephone service, internet, running water and electricity, and even residents of larger towns have no indication of when neighborhood power will be restored. Those in poor, rural communities have had no contact from FEMA or other governmental agencies and some wonder if the government has forgotten them.

Transportation is severely limited. Landslides have blocked mountainous roads and numerous large pieces of highway have fallen into the valley below. In some places, travel by car is becoming even more treacherous as rains weaken the supporting soil now stripped of vegetation.

Residents must wait in lines to buy gasoline for generators and vehicles. Many walk to conserve fuel, which is also hazardous due to downed wires and poles, damaged sidewalks, and debris that forces pedestrians to share the street with cars.

Food is scarce. Because so much agriculture was destroyed, few local fruits or vegetables are available and what remains is outrageously expensive. The dairy industry has been seriously affected; several mothers reported that their small children have been crying for milk and don’t understand why it’s not available. The chicken industry has also been devastated. A Mennonite chicken farmer in Pulguillas lost between 90,000 and 100,000 chickens, still has no electricity, and is, therefore, unable to hatch eggs to replace those that died. In the meantime, the price of eggs and chicken meat has skyrocketed.

Education has stalled. Staff, parents and volunteers (including a team from Indiana/Virginia) have worked diligently to re-open classes at Academia Menonita Betania with support from Mennonite Education Agency. The campus has no electricity or running water, several roofs are missing or damaged, and 12 students have left to live with relatives and attend classes in the US, yet school director Sr. Veldez remains committed to resuming students’ education.

Many residents are experiencing symptoms of traumatic stress. In addition to the original trauma of living through a long-lasting hurricane, the stressors of its subsequent destruction continue with no end in sight. Some individuals reported their hearts beating so fast and hard that they hurt. Others had visibly shaking hands and lips. Many seemed to be suffering from severe depression. Several reported that their brains weren’t “working right,” and displayed cognitive confusion and disorientation. Fear is prevalent, as are feelings of abandonment. Heggen reports that the phrase she heard most often was, “Estoy tan cansada.”  (I am so tired.)

Some individuals reported feelings of anger—at the government and the insensitive things President Donald Trump has said about Puerto Ricans, or at local authorities for not cleaning streets faster or restoring water and electricity. Some don’t know where to direct their anger, and several confessed anger toward God while asking profound spiritual questions about God’s love, omnipotence, and silence.

Many Puerto Ricans are evacuating. The Puerto Rican government has indicated that more than 500,000 people have fled to the United States. One airport employee stated that more than 600 cars have been abandoned at the airport with keys inside and plates removed, the owners having left the country. Thirteen elderly people were carried in wheelchairs onto Heggen’s returning flight, all on their way to live with adult children in the U.S. One woman said she was depressed to leave but couldn’t survive alone in her leaking house without water or a way to get food.

And yet, there is hope. Amidst the severe damage and ongoing struggle in Puerto Rico, there remain signs of tenacity, compassion and courage of its people. Individuals, particularly those in churches, seem to be aware of the needs of others—especially the infirmed and elderly. Local Mennonite churches are sharing food and watching over the elderly. The Aibonito Mennonite Church has placed a washer and dryer in their social hall and invited the community to use it. Even those who have little seem to be sharing with those who have less; many have amazing resilience.

Still, Puerto Rico has many needs. Heggen reports that Mennonite Disaster Service’s presence is appropriate and appreciated, as is MHS’s effort to provide support for psychological recovery. The outpouring of support from the North is much appreciated by the local people who are grateful to not be forgotten.

During her assessment visit to the island, Heggen was a guest speaker at a women’s gathering that was attended by 65 individuals from six congregations. She addressed the physical, emotional, cognitive, spiritual and relational ways we are affected by trauma, and focused on ways to create an “internal sanctuary” in the midst of chaos.

Heggen also led a workshop for the teachers and staff at Academia Menonita Betania, discussing ways to identify students who may need help, what to expect in traumatized children, and healing ways to intervene. She supplied the school with several copies of a Spanish translation of, “A Terrible Thing Happened,” a book by Margaret M. Holmes, and led an assembly for all intermediate grade students.

At Hospital Menonita, Heggen met with eight cancer patients who were receiving chemotherapy infusions, a hospitalized father of a Mennonite woman suffering from ovarian cancer and the hospital chaplain. She also visited pastors and congregants in other towns who had lost or damaged homes.

MHS urges constituents to not forget Puerto Rico in prayer and to consider a donation of dollars and/or volunteer hours to Mennonite Disaster Service. Any mental health professionals with trauma training who are interested in volunteering should be in touch with Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship by calling Deloris Rhodes at 1-888-406-3643 or emailing And those interested in directly supporting the work of Carolyn Holderread Heggen and other trauma specialists can send tax-deductible contributions to MHS at 1112 North Main St., Goshen, Indiana 46528.

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