Después Del Huracán… Sea La Paz Sea La Paz
(After the Hurricane… Be The Peace, Be The Peace)
By Rev. Edwin A.González Castillo
How can one go to sleep after seeing a meteorologist crying in the middle of the weather report when talking about the hurricane that is about to hit the place where you live? That night, September 19, I managed to sleep just a little, after humming and thinking about the words of a hymn that some of the members of my church like called “Peace! Be Still!”. Who would have thought that a few hours later, we would be experiencing the words from this hymn when we felt the tempest raging and the strength of the threat’ning wind pushing rain through the doors of the house.
That Wednesday, September 20, Puerto Rico, called “the enchanted island” was struck by one of the worst hurricane in its history. Since the early hours of that day, winds of up to 165 miles per hour began to wreak havoc on the island. The electricity went out, then the phone signal, and then the water service collapsed. Puerto Rico, for more than 20 hours felt the battering of a hurricane that appeared to have no end in sight. In the darkness of hiding places, you could hear the sound of something falling, breaking, flying, and smashing into houses and cars. In other parts of the island, the struggle was how to survive the water that started to rise and come in through all the openings of the house. The water came from everywhere: from the sea, from the rivers that jumped their banks, from flooded dams, and dirty water from clogged sewers.
Thursday morning brought a devastating scene. Trees were uprooted by the wind. Streets were completely impassable due to the number of trees and electric poles on the ground. There were Zinc sheets, cisterns, solar panels and tons of debris that were being gathered up from the backyards and the streets by people who couldn’t look up, because their eyes did not want to believe this was happening. The island had lost its charm. And it was even worse, when we got to see the countless wooden homes that were tossed to the ground like they were houses of cards. Two days later, when I visited a young couple from our church, I discovered what it felt like to lose everything.
The level of destruction left by Hurricane Maria is unprecedented. Thousands of people had to flee their homes and take refuge with family members or government shelters. The effect of flooding across the island forced thousands of families to climb up in a hurry and stay on the roof of their homes or the homes of some of their neighbors. Windows came out, roofs were ripped like they were made out of paper, cars and vans were overturned, bridges collapsed, and more than three million people lived out the stories about hurricanes that had been shared by their grandparents in real life.
That Thursday morning, Puerto Rico went back in time. 80 % of the island had no cell phones signal. There was no water, no electricity, no Internet, no radio, no accessible roads. Then, a sense of uncertainty and the questions about the fate of family and friends, started to make it hard to fight against the tears. The news about the how the hurricane had ravaged different towns started coming in little by little. With the news, came the thought of family and friends that lived in that area. “This bridge completely collapsed.” “The whole town flooded.” “The storm surge destroyed the homes that were on the coastline.” “They say that the dam has a breach.” These were all phrases that felt like daggers in the heart of anyone that heard them or said them. On the radio, there were constant messages about staying home… but… how do you control your heart’s longing for news about your mother? How do you live by the logic that the roads are full of debris if you cannot reach a loved one by phone?
The next day brought with it endless lines of cars looking for the few available gas stations in town. Lines where everywhere: the pharmacy, the bakery, the supermarket, the ice factories and even to get some cash to be able to buy in any of these places. Imagine that. Lines for getting cash out of an ATM machine.
The journey towards recovery will take months if not years. Our reality as a colony of the United States brings forth a sad scene because we are second class citizens. This means that the response from the government has proven to be slow. It took almost a week for President Donald Trump to dedicate some of his now famous tweet to what was happening in Puerto Rico. It is sad to think that we have to remind the US government that we are American citizens in order to receive what feels like crumbs falling from the master’s table. We are more than citizens of the United States… we are human… and that should be enough.
Regretfully, it has not been enough to be humans or citizens. To this day, there are still areas of Puerto Rico that are receiving small quantities of food by helicopter because there is no other way to get in. The lives of thousands of people that depend on health care are at risk. Shelters face food shortages. There is a high risk of diseases spreading across the island.
But, in the midst of chaos, uncertainty and desperation that have taken hold in many places, there is a sense that the “Master of ocean, and earth and skies”, as the refrain of the hymn says, is with us, giving us peace. I felt that the storm had passed, and that Jesus had been with us through everything.
There is no water or electricity. There are lines everywhere and there is bad news. This is true. But there are also neighbors helping each other out. There are people helping to cut trees to find a way through. There are strangers asking sincerely how you feel. There are people rescuing others from the roofs of their homes. There are civilians helping to direct traffic. There are people with trucks moving debris from the backyards of total strangers. There is good news. News of unsung heroes that saved people who were drowning. Of police personnel that, in the middle of the storm and in a car that was stuck in the middle of fallen trees, helped a woman to welcome a new life into the world. As time passes, hope starts to shine through in the sharing of food amongst neighbors, in the electrical cord that crosses the street between the house with a generator and the house were someone who needs insulin lives. We see people giving water to the police and famous chefs preparing tons of food for the refugees.
We also see the diaspora, the thousands of Puerto Ricans that live in the United States and that have responded in an extraordinary way to the situation. In the United States and in other countries there are places for gathering things needed to send to the island. Artist, politicians, and the private business sector have been in solidarity with our people. There has been business that have paid salaries, even if the people have not been able to come to work. Some people that have come to work, have been received with boxes of water, generators, and money.
As Genesis states, God’s Spirit has moved in the midst of our chaos, and has moved the hearts and hands of thousands of people in and out of Puerto Rico, that have put aside their political, religious and economic differences to work for this country. Puerto Rico’s coat of arms has a lamb on it. This lamb is traditionally associated with John the Baptist, but it has come to symbolize that the island belongs to Christ. Through all of this, our island is still the island of the Lamb.
Little by little, we see how Puerto Rico raises up. It will probably take our recognition of our own strength and capabilities, and a realization that our greatest treasure and resource is our own people, the Puerto Rican people. It is also obvious that we will also need to keep on recognizing the teacher’s voice as he continues to say, “Peace! Be still! Peace! Be still” So Help us God.
Rev. Edwin A.González Castillo is a Presbyterian Pastor and the Stated Clerk of the San Juan Presbytery in Puerto Rico.