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Hurricane Maria pounds Puerto Rico

PUERTO RICO (BP) — As Hurricane Maria pounded Puerto Rico with potentially record-breaking winds on Wednesday (Sept. 20), Southern Baptist disaster relief workers pulled back and prepared for a long-haul response in the Caribbean.

“It’s going to be a long, multi-month response with a lot of needs for volunteers and supplies,” said David Melber, vice president of the North American Mission Board’s Send Relief.

Disaster relief teams had just received FEMA approval to take much-needed aid to the Virgin Islands — an area hit hard two weeks ago by the Category 5 Hurricane Irma — but had to press pause on relief efforts when Maria rolled in.

With its 175 mph sustained winds, Maria “is really scraping the upper echelon of what’s possible with hurricanes,” according to CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam. The storm — the first Category 4 storm to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years — uprooted trees, ripped roofs off houses and sent thousands more refugees into already packed shelters. The infamous storms that hit the island in 1928 and 1930 pale in comparison to Maria, Van Dam said.

Carlos Mercader, a spokesman for Puerto Rico’s governor, called it “total devastation” of “historic proportions.”

Because of that, Melber said, disaster relief teams have a lot of work to do.

“We think it’s going to be a three-to-six-month effort,” he said. “There is a very high demand and need for volunteers both trained and untrained ones who would be willing to go receive training once on the island.”

Melber said he assumes these areas hit hard by Irma then pummeled by Maria will be without power for “a great length of time.” Getting clean water will be a big problem, he said. “They will need a lot of help in the way of getting food and having a water supply.”

The first wave of teams is on standby, ready to go to the Caribbean as soon as traveling into the disaster zone is safe, he said.

But even with large-scale preparation, disaster relief forces “will be stretched very thin” as Southern Baptists continue to respond to domestic hurricane victims in Texas and Florida and victims of lesser-publicized disasters such as the Montana wildfires, Melber said.

“I’m grateful for so many partners across the Southern Baptist spectrum who have been working so hard — some of them seven days a week even before Hurricane Harvey hit,” he said.

Volunteers are working harder than ever before, but Melber said this could be “the church’s finest hour as we have the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus and share the salvation found in Him with many who are hurting and asking questions.”

For more information, go to sendrelief.net.