Alex Gonzalez is superintendent of Academia Menonita Betania in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. This column first appeared in the January edition of The Mennonite magazine. Only a small portion of our print articles are shared online. Subscribe now to receive a year of The Mennonite each month.
The night of Sept. 19, 2017, will be an unforgettable night for those who experienced the fury of Hurricane Maria.
Academia Menonita Betania sustained heavy damage, due to the intensity of the hurricane. All its buildings suffered minor or major damage. Three buildings lost their aluminum roofs, destroying equipment and leaving the classrooms in terrible shape. Another building retained its concrete roof but suffers water-filtration problems. A building with three stories lost its aluminum roof, and water-filtration problems are affecting the two lower floors. The volunteer house used by SOOP (Serving Others with Our Partners), Mennonite Voluntary Service and other volunteers lost its aluminum roof but retained part of its wooden roofing. Still, all its contents were totaled. In addition to buildings, all the electrical posts and structures were destroyed. All electrical wires fell to the ground around the school property; many posts also fell and will need to be replaced. The school fence was destroyed by fallen trees. At present, the school is operating without electricity.
This hurricane has affected the lives of our students, teachers and other personnel. Since Puerto Rico had not suffered the effects of a hurricane since George in 1998, this experience is new for all our students and the most destructive experience the inhabitants of this island have seen.
The island went dark from the complete collapse of the electric system. The majority of the island still has no electricity. Drinking water has been reestablished faster, but 20 percent of the population still has no access to this precious resource, and those who do sometimes have to wait hours or days because water cannot be pumped at plants when electricity is disrupted. Several filtration plants operate with generators.
Also, all the telecomm infrastructure collapsed. There was no way to contact loved ones within and outside the island. It was nerve-wracking not being able to contact our families to find out their status. At present, a large portion of the telecommunications system has been reestablished, but coverage is limited. In some cases, people can make calls, but data/Internet service is absent. Likewise, gas is being rationed, and only a few gas stations opened during the first three weeks after the hurricane. All people in Puerto Rico waited in line from two to 12 hours to get gas.
Food was in short supply in supermarkets, and the hunt for water and ice became a daily challenge for families. Our students at first seemed comfortable with this new experience, but after a week, the hopelessness and discomfort of this technologically oriented generation showed. In addition, they could not have imagined a day without services in most areas. Maria marked everyone’s lives, and people referred to “my life before Maria and my life after Maria.”
After a week since the hurricane and still without phone service, we were able to get our teachers to come to school to work in the school rebuilding process. Everyone responded to our call for help, even when some had lost their homes. People cleaned up the school so that classes could begin. The work of our teachers, members of Mennonite churches, parents and people from the community made this possible.
There is still debris to clean up. Mennonite Disaster Service has become involved in this process and is committed to remove all debris and help with the renovation of the school. The school opened its doors on Oct. 23, despite more work needing to be done and without basic services, such as electricity, telephone and water. The school has a water tank that is replenished biweekly and allows us to operate. Without this we would not have been able to start classes.
Betania has experienced hardship in past years as well. Yet we feel God’s presence in the school despite the destruction Maria brought. We feel a spirit of solidarity among all members of our school community. We live in an environment where we feel love, service, faith and hope.
Attendance was at 99 percent when we started classes, and our tuition did not decrease when parents left the island. We have even seen an increase in new students, thanks to the delay in starting classes in the public school system. Parents recognized our school’s teaching quality and decided to keep their children here despite the damages suffered by our structures.
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