One week after Hurricane Maria hammered Puerto Rico, my flight from Miami, Fla., landed at San Juan International Airport on a sweltering September day topped by a crystalline azure sky.
That day, with its golden, late-summer sun, stood in stark contrast to the devastation I was about to witness. Then, the devastation was all I could see; now I see that the essence of the Puerto Rico story lies, instead, in the light of that sun.
Maria’s consequences were clear the moment I stepped from the jetway. With no electricity to power the airport’s air conditioning, a blast of heat hit like an open oven door, despite large pedestal fans standing sentinel at the gate. The airport felt empty and cavernous, since the numbers of flights to and from the island had been cut; only a few eateries were open for business.
My time on the island on that trip — when I reported on American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ (ABHMS) disaster-response assessment efforts — totaled little more than a day, but it was more than enough to be deeply moved by a world turned upside down and sideways.
I watched my colleagues help Primera Iglesia de Rio Piedras feed the homeless, doling out half cups of water with each meal of rice and beans served from the back of a van in a town square. I saw lines of people, double-digits deep, waiting to fill gas cans to run generators. Cars were lined up for blocks, as drivers waited to fill gas tanks.
That Friday night, Old San Juan — a centuries-old city ordinarily vibrant with the brilliant hues and teeming life of the tropics — was eerie in its darkness. Most restaurants were closed. The few we found open were closing at 7 p.m., just as we sought sustenance for the night. I found myself thankful for police patrols when we came upon them.
At breakfast the next morning, our server, Tony, could not take a credit card as payment for eggs and toast and apologized that he had no change in return for the cash we offered for our meal.
“This is horrible,” he said. “We just laugh and pretend things are normal.”
I wondered how such basic frustrations of daily life in this post-Maria Puerto Rico — with no end in sight — would fray the social fabric of the island.
When I returned two months later to report on the continuing needs of the people of Puerto Rico and American Baptist churches and related ministries there, things had changed. This time the airport’s air conditioning worked. Piles of debris had been cleared from roadways, swept aside to the shoulders so life could start moving again. Restaurants were open in San Juan, where street lights now illuminated shops and sidewalks, and traffic hummed along as it would in any metropolitan area. Gas station lines were gone. Things were looking up, it would seem.
Scratch the surface, though, and a critical, continuing crisis revealed itself.
At our first stop — a meeting of pastors at Primera Iglesia Bautista de Juncos — the discussion centered around “compassion fatigue.” When we visited Primera Iglesia de Carolina, we heard from the director of the church’s social services ministry that the island’s suicide rate had doubled since Maria’s landfall. And at the church’s Mercy Warehouse, we learned the numbers of people needing clothing had increased because residents couldn’t wash, so they were wearing clothing for a week, then tossing worn items and needing new clothes.
At a homeless shelter of Corporación Milagros del Amor (CORMA) — an ABHMS Christian center partner in Caguas — I met Yaritza Sanchez, who stayed with the shelter’s residents during the storm.
“When the winds started, the trees started coming down,” she said. “By 11 at night there was no electricity, the river rose to full, the house began to flood, and I spent almost 24 hours taking out water. …When I got home and saw everything destroyed, I broke down crying, but I thanked God because I was alive and my children were alive…what was lost was material.”
At CORMA, the Rev. Dr. Yamina Apolinaris, executive director, told us: “It’s been a rough time. It’s hard to see what our people have gone through, and we are concerned about the future, but we are people of hope.”
We met high school student Stephanie Adorno during our visit to Academia Bautista de Puerto Nuevo, which was without electricity for months after Maria. She told us about helping, with dozens of other students, to unload a shipping container — coordinated by ABHMS and Church World Service — filled with thousands of school kits, personal hygiene kits and hundreds of tarps: Each box carried into the school, which would serve as a distribution point, was like “a little star lighting the darkness of this nation,” she said.
It struck me that this sort of wisdom should not have to come from one so young. Teenagers should be thinking about homework or the prom, perhaps, but not about having no power to keep the lights on.
From Stephanie, I learned the true story of Hurricane Maria, and it’s not about devastation or destruction. It’s about Tony and Yaritza, Yamina and Stephanie, and thousands more like them. It’s about their grit, their courage and their resignation to face the hardships fueled by Maria’s fury — and go on.
Their resilience — that’s the Hurricane Maria story that teaches us, so powerfully, about the humanity we all share. Like those boxes the students carried, Tony, Yaritza, Yamina and Stephanie carry lights of faith, hope and love into the struggle that Puerto Ricans will face for a long time.
And, as the story of faith tells us, light always pierces the darkness.
Susan Gottshall is American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ director of Communications. First published in The Christian Citizen April 17, 2018.