PUERTO RICO (BP) — More than a week after Puerto Rico suffered its greatest natural disaster, the condition of most of the Southern Baptist churches on the island is still unknown, a church planting catalyst on the island told Baptist Press.
But the 12 churches Carlos Rodriguez has been able to contact are doing all they can to help survivors of hurricanes Irma and Maria, he said in a telephone interview Sept. 27. Rodriguez had been unable to contact the remaining 75 or so Southern Baptist churches on the island because of damaged infrastructure and communication services, he said.
“The churches in the metropolitan area and some in the south (and southeast) … are OK,” the North American Mission Board (NAMB) church planting catalyst said. Those 12 churches had only “limited damage, nothing really bad.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) today (Sept. 28) gave Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) teams permission to move onto the island to help recovery efforts, NAMB told BP. The teams had been on standby as National Guard and U.S. military troops conducted search and rescue efforts and delivered emergency humanitarian resources.
In the meantime, NAMB has been working closely with state Baptist partners, FEMA, the American Red Cross and Southern Baptist pastors on the island to set a response in place.
“We have just received a green light from government officials,” said David Melber, NAMB’s vice president of Send Relief. “Southern Baptists will play a significant role in this response and there will be a long-term need for volunteers and resources.”
Melber said the Southern Baptist response will include feeding teams that will be serving at several locations throughout the island. In addition, Send Relief is sending care packages directly to Puerto Rican Southern Baptist pastors. The packages will include vital equipment and supplies. NAMB is also working with the Florida Baptist Convention to facilitate church-to-church partnerships so Southern Baptist churches on the mainland can work directly with counterparts in Puerto Rico. More information is available at sendrelief.net  as well as opportunities to volunteer or donate.
On the island, Rodriguez had cell service only because he had managed to travel to the island’s metropolitan area of San Juan. He noted he’d be unreachable by phone once he returned to his home on the island’s south side. Hurricane Maria destroyed the island’s electrical grid, compounding the damage from Hurricane Irma two weeks earlier.
“The churches are trying to do their best with the limited resources they have right now. Other agencies also — the Red Cross — are trying to help the people,” he said. Pastors are visiting with survivors in shelters, praying with them and offering spiritual comfort.
Recovery in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where an additional eight Southern Baptist churches are located, has also been slow. Lennox Zamore, pastor of Ebenezer Memorial Baptist Church in Saint Thomas, told BP last week that churches there were rallying to help the devastated community.
“Amid the crisis and chaos, the church is emerging to be the nerve center of the community,” Zamore said in a text message. “We are resourcing churches to be supply pods for food, supplies, tarps, counseling, and VBS (Vacation Bible School). And the Kingdom is responding all across America, led of course by the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention).”
It will take months to regain electrical power, reopen schools, universities and government offices, and restore government services, he said.
“Recovery is slow because of the curfews and crippled infrastructure. Irma destroyed St. Thomas and St. John, so the government was operating from St. Croix,” Zamore said. “Maria came through and destroyed St. Croix, bringing things to a virtual halt. No island has power.”
In the U.S., President Donald Trump lifted certain restrictions of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, to allow foreign cargo ships to transport supplies to Puerto Rico, press secretary Sandra Huckabee tweeted today.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, speaking on today’s Morning Joe on MSNBC, shared an update on relief efforts so far. Puerto Rico has rescued 5,500 people since the storm, reopened 34 of the 69 hospitals, and has received four million liters of water, he said, but the island is limited in transporting food and supplies to residents.
“Between yesterday and today, we’ve impacted 50 municipalities to get them food, water and of course, try to work with the diesel and fuel distribution,” he said. “The food is here, the water is here, but critically what we need is equipment and (people), whether it be National Guard or state guard.”
Puerto Rico is distinct from Texas and Florida, Rossello said, in that the island has no bordering countries to help, and travel is restricted to air and sea.