A Puerto Rico Diary

Islanders help another island rebuild

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 4:15pm
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Editor’s Note: Island residents and Harbor Church members Pat Tengwall and Dave Roosa traveled to Puerto Rico in March for a volunteer work project organized by the American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island (ABCORI). Their mission trip was part of the American Baptist denomination’s ongoing effort to aid in the recovery and rebuilding of Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Pat kept a diary of his trip, excerpted here.

The journey

Friday, March 15: Our team of 38 volunteers have been alternately waiting in airports and flying since 4:00 a.m. At 12:40 p.m., on final approach to San Juan’s international airport, I call out blue tarps covering roofs in the western suburbs. Not many, but they’re still there. Every blue tarp means the roof under it hasn’t been fixed or replaced in 18 months, and the building is vulnerable to the next storm.

1:30 p.m.: Leaving the airport, we drive in five rented vans through a complex, congested traffic pattern to the expressway, then 30 miles south into the central mountain range that runs east-west through Puerto Rico, over the ridges to the southern edge of the municipality of Caguas. We double back on PR Route 1 (think US 1 in rural Maine, but narrower and more twisted) to our lodging. Centro de Retiro Ruth Maldonado is a retreat center on a hilltop, operated by the American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS). We pick our bunks, have an early dinner, and meet for orientation.

The assignments

Friday, March 15, late afternoon: Our orientation session is run by Rev. Abigaíl Medina Betancourt, volunteer coordinator of the Home Mission’s Rebuilding, Restoring, Renewing Puerto Rico (RRR PR) initiative, and Hector, the construction coordinator on their staff. Since Hurricane Maria’s Sept. 2017 landfall on Puerto Rico, they say, 48 American Baptist churches, schools and other entities on the island have been restored or are undergoing restoration through the initiative. The first year had focused on restoring this retreat center and another elsewhere on the island so the volunteer teams would have secure places to stay while they rebuilt local church buildings. 

Abigaíl lays out our schedule for the work week beginning Monday. Breakfast is at 6:30 a.m., and departure for work sites by 7:15. We will make our own sandwiches for lunch – PB and J! Ham and cheese! – but our hosts may feed us at the work sites. (They did.) Dinner back at the retreat center will be early, usually at 4:00. Around 5:30 each night, we will have a large group meeting with a theme and break out into smaller discussion groups to reflect on our day and on our experiences, led by Rev. Kathryn Palen, ABCORI’s Associate Executive Minister for Eldercare Ministries, or one of the five pastors on the trip. Afterwards, free time until lights out at 10 p.m.

Hector has divided us into three teams of 11 to 15 volunteers — “Passionary,” it says on our new light-blue T-shirts — with similar work for each: restoring homes and churches that still have hurricane damage, especially on their roofs. That was the overall plan, followed by the phrase, “Be prepared to be flexible.” Hector divided my Team Two into three smaller groups to work at different sites.

About those roofs: Most of the houses in Puerto Rico are built of concrete, unlike those on most Caribbean islands. Even the roofs are concrete – if you can afford it; else, it’s a gable or shed roof, the rafters covered with metal. Almost all the concrete roofs are flat poured slabs, pitched only slightly toward drain holes through the parapets on every side. Few have slanted slabs to shed rain.

I learned it’s a conscious choice: Concrete buildings survive storms that destroy wood-frame buildings, while wooden buildings give in an earthquake that would damage concrete structures. And Puerto Rico, like most of the islands in the Caribbean, is volcanic in origin. It sits on the edge of a tectonic plate and frequently experiences mild tremors.

On the work site Monday, I asked a local church leader, “Is a concrete roof better?” Yes, he said, but trees felled in a storm can damage a concrete roof. Irma and Maria stripped metal roofs off concrete and frame buildings alike, all over the island – thus the ubiquitous blue tarps. Our task will be to power-wash the concrete to remove grime and mold, then apply a sealer with rollers on long handles, the same as sealing an asphalt driveway. Of course, we have to let the roof dry for a day before and between rolling on the two coats.

Unlike some work projects, our schedule puts the free time at the beginning of the trip instead of at the end. Saturday, March 16 is our free day. Most of us drove to Old San Juan and explored the narrow streets and the fortresses that have protected them for 500 years.

Sunday, March 17 is a day for worship and relaxation. We drove to an American Baptist church in San Juan for Sunday services (bilingual today, just for us). After lunch and a meeting of the team leaders, we split up for the afternoon, almost 90 minutes of highway driving east of San Juan, in the northeast corner of the island. Most go to walk trails in El Yunque National Forest – the only tropical rainforest in the National Forest system – while others, Dave and I among them, head to the public beach in Luquillo.

After a late dinner Sunday night, I meet the co-workers in my small group for the week. Two of the women, Janet and Noreen, are members of the Central Baptist Church in Westerly; the third, Linda, was my seatmate on the flight from Baltimore and is a member of Oak Lawn Community Baptist Church in Cranston. Drew, from First Baptist in East Greenwich, is our van driver and nominal leader.

The work

Monday, March 18: We went to work. 

Dave Roosa was on Team One, assigned to a restoration project at the First Baptist Church of Santurce in San Juan, where we had worshipped on Sunday. They drove their 15-passenger van each weekday through commuter traffic to San Juan and back to clear out debris on an upper floor of the 80-year old building before refinishing the concrete roof.

Team Three learned at the Friday orientation meeting that on Tuesday they would be traveling to the city of Arecibo on the north coast 50 miles west of San Juan. It was too far to drive to and from the retreat center every day, so they would be staying in homes there. On Monday, they worked on homes near Caguas, then packed for three nights away. Once in Arecibo, they removed blue tarps covering damaged metal roofs on homes — gable roofs — and re-roofed them with metal over plywood. Time will tell if the new roof will be anchored well enough to withstand another storm.

My team, Team Two, drove each morning about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the retreat center to our base of operations, the Igliesia Bautista la Nueva Ebenezer (New Ebenezer Baptist Church) in the neighboring municipality of Cidra. The pastor, Rev. Jose D. Torres Lopez (“Pastor Joe”), led us all in prayer before we began work. Group A washed and refinished concrete roofs on homes in the area. Group B did interior painting at the church.

My Group C went up on the church roof. Did I mention that I’m not a fan of ladders or heights? I learned quickly to never turn my back to the edge of the roof, or walk backwards without checking my path. We cleaned the flat areas of the concrete roof on Monday, did the same at a house on Tuesday while the church roof dried, then applied the sealer to it on two more days. By Friday noon, we had cleaned and sealed concrete roofs on a total of four houses as well as on the church building. I also used the power washer to scrub the concrete gutter and patio surrounding the church.

It was dirty work. My $10 Job Lot shorts survived. It was rewarding work. My spirit was rejuvenated.

The stories

Kathryn Palen, the ABCORI team’s leader and organizer, asked the volunteers throughout our week in Puerto Rico to think about “What’s your story? What story will you take home” from this week of ministry in Puerto Rico?

Everyone in Puerto Rico has a story about Irma and Maria. We heard only a few.

Monday, March 18: Pastor Joe of the New Ebenezer church brought some of us into the restored “templo,” or sanctuary. He told us Maria’s winds blew off half of the room’s metal gable roof and damaged the other half. Two feet of water filled the space. All the pews survived, but only half the room was usable until the roof and the ceiling tiles were replaced.

The pastor lives 45 minutes from the church building in a town closer to the coast. He told us he was at home when Maria arrived around 1:00 a.m. For the next two hours, he could follow the storm’s progress on the radio. At 3:00 a.m. the power went out. From then on, he (and everyone else on the island) had no electricity, no communication, no idea what the storm was doing. Meanwhile, everyone in the mainland U.S. could see everything happening in Puerto Rico on TV and the internet, watching the coverage by the network news teams that had arrived on the island before Maria’s landfall. The TV crews had their own generators. Pastor Joe’s home was without power for four months.

Tuesday, March 19: Another pastor, also named Jose, led us a short distance from the church to begin work on the roof of a small single-story concrete home. The grime there was much worse than on the church. The power washer’s high-pressure water stream tore through a plastic membrane that covered part of the roof, exposing crumbling concrete and slowing us down. It took all morning to clean that section, all of us taking turns at the nozzle – even Jose came up the ladder to help.

At lunch, a young college student who lived in the house explained that it had had little direct hurricane damage because it was at a lower elevation than the homes across the street. They lost several trees in the back yard, however, and were without power for two months.

After lunch, Jose returned wearing tall rubber boots and took the wand, doing our work. We all looked at one another and shrugged. The rest of the roof was raw concrete and washed up more quickly.

What is my story from Puerto Rico? I admit, going into this experience, I had a pretty good idea of the story I wanted to tell – expected to tell: That almost two years after two hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico within 14 days, the island still has a long way to go to rebuild and recover. That story was confirmed, validated, by the people we met and listened to.

My other story, my own message from the week, is this: People who open themselves up to God’s leading, to serving others, may – will – find opportunities to share His love in works of service and ministry to their neighbors, wherever they find themselves, at home or away. I want to be part of that.

For more information about the Rebuilding, Restoring, Renewing Puerto Rico initiative, go to http://abhms.org/mission/themes/puerto-rico-relief/.