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San Juan, Puerto Rico – “We can only hope and pray.”

Casimiro and Evelyn in the “kitchen”

Evelyn Luciano, her husband, Roberto, and their two children were shaken from their sleep early on the morning of January 7 when the strongest earthquake in a generation struck the municipality of Guayanilla on the Southern coast of Puerto Rico, sending tremors and knocking out power throughout the island.

Evelyn and Roberto, who had survived Hurricanes Irma and Maria less than three years ago, own a food business and lived in a beautiful, small home on the Caribbean Sea shore.  Suddenly, they felt the house shake from the magnitude 6.4 earthquake and saw water gushing in from a crack in their wall.  Taking their children, they huddled on the bed and prayed as the house continued to shake.

“It was a terrible, horrible feeling.  I just closed my eyes and was very scared for our family.  I thought we were going to die so we just started praying together and never stopped until help arrived,” Evelyn said in broken English under a blazing sun last Thursday afternoon as she stood in a makeshift Tent City on a mountainside overlooking their old neighborhood.

Many of their neighbors moved there with bare essentials from their homes to set up residence among themselves rather than venture into the heart of Guayanilla to live inside a government created tent community.

Nearly 8,100 people have taken refuge in 42 government and non-governmental shelters located in 14 municipalities, including the hardest hit towns of Ponce, Penuelas, Guanica, Utuado, Guayanilla and Yauco.  Hundreds more are living outside their homes, some in cars and others in tents out of fear of the structurers in which they live.  At least eight were injured and one died when a wall collapsed on him in his residence in Ponce.  The quakes are continuing in this area as two aftershocks measuring over a magnitude of 4 were felt yesterday.

houses destroyed by the earthquake in the southern town of Guanica – photo by Casimiro Rodriguez
A volunteer organizes brand new cots for the residents who will call this area “home” until their homes are safe to return to.

“They remember how slow government support was after Hurricane Maria and they did not want to be far from their homes so they set up their own tent city in the mountains and we assisted with tarps, tents, cots and blankets but we need a lot more.  Residents in neighboring communities are donating food and water so they have enough of that.  We just need shelter for them, rest rooms and showers,” explained Jamie Blanco of Iglesia Adventista del Septimo Dia Puerto Rico, whose Adventist Development & Relief Agency is a global humanitarian disaster relief organization of the Seven Day Adventist Church.  They are coordinating donations and assistance in these mountain side communities for families who do not want to leave their barrios (neighborhoods).

They have also created a mobile church on the back of a flatbed that travels to these rural tent cities in several southern Puerto Rico municipalities, providing daily religious services and counseling to men, women and children who are left wondering if and when they will ever get back to their homes as this Caribbean Island and unincorporated United States territory has experienced more than 1,000 earthquakes and aftershocks since it began on December 28.  More than 550 homes and buildings, including a school, have been leveled.

A volunteer putting children through recreation exercises
houses destroyed by the earthquake in the southern town of Guanica – photo by Casimiro Rodriguez

“Prayer and faith are their only hope.  These people are very scared and they must stay here because they have either lost their homes to the earthquake or they are damaged because the ground is still shaking,” explained Pastor Mirta Fuentes, who was interrupted as we spoke by a 3.9 magnitude earthquake that severely shook the ground we stood on.  It was a scary moment but for those in the tent community, they have become used to them.  It does not make it any easier for them as they all fear what further damage could occur.

“Their biggest need is shelter.  Tents, cots, tarps and warm clothing because it gets cold at night,” Pastor Fuentes continued.

The Luciano family’s tent

Luciano and others escaped to the mountainside for fear a tsunami will wash away their home or another major earthquake will cause more damage or collapse their homes.

Blanco said, unlike a hurricane, no one can predict when the next earthquake will occur and more important, when this will finally be over.

Rather than live in their seaside home with air conditioning, running water and electricity, the Luciano’s and four other families have created their own space within their tent city with a large blue tarp hanging over what they call their living room and storage of supplies.  There are a couple chairs, a small couch and a table for meals.  There is also a table for the nightly games of dominoes which helps them take their mind off this anguish.

Volunteers serve daily hot meals to the residents

“People ask when we can go back but we do not know if it will be one day, one week, one month or one year,” Evelyn Lucciano quietly said in a makeshift open-air kitchen with a pot of rice and beans on the propane gas powered stove.  “We know we will have to start all over again but that is okay.”

Blanco added, “These people are fearful something bigger may occur because of so many aftershocks and now earthquakes occurring in different towns along the coast and in land.  No one knows when another quake will occur, and they are afraid to go into their homes because of the continuous shaking and cracks in the walls.”

One of several Mountainside tents in Guayanilla

Government Controlled Tent Cities

Five miles from the mountainside, in the heart of Guyanilla, is one of the government-controlled tent cities inside the Luis A. Mercado Toro baseball stadium and an adjacent athletic complex. Soon after the January 7 earthquake Governor Wanda Vazquez Garced declared a State of Emergency and ordered the National Guard to the municipalities affected by the earthquakes.

One of their first orders of business was to establish these tent communities, which, compared to the tents and living conditions in the mountains and along the roads, these are the Ritz of Tent Cities.

Residents inside one of many large tents with tarps on the floor, sturdy, new cots and warm blankets

More than two dozen large white or military brown tents were pitched with new, sturdy cots and warm blankets.  Large generators provided power for light and in some tents, air conditioning.  Rest room facilities were available, and volunteers were everywhere.  The local school district prepared three meals a day and in the stadium a commissary and buffet line for hot meals was set up on the third base line in the baseball stadium. A live band was setting up under a large tent at home plate to entertain the more than 650 people living in the tents while superheroes performed for kids while others participated in athletic activities.

Roadside tents in Guayanilla for families afraid to go back into their homes. As we were there cars would pull up and people would get out with donations of food, water and supplies.
Puerto Rico National Guard Major Luis Melendez on the phone to a nearby hospital for more supplies

“We are trying to make it as comfortable for them as possible under these conditions,” explained Major Luis Melendez, the medicine doctor of the Puerto Rico National Guard who is also responsible for two hospital tents.  He said his greatest concern is the mental well-being of those affected, especially the elderly.  He is hopeful mental health experts from the United States will arrive soon to assist them.

When asked about those residents living in the mountains, Major Melendez was concerned about their health and safety.  “For many, they would rather stay there and be close to their homes and hope they can go home soon,” he said.

“We can only hope and pray.”

Tremors and lost power on the other side of the Island

My wife Debbie and I are in Puerto Rico on our annual New Year’s vacation.  Two years ago, we toured the island to see the devastation created by the deadly Category 5 Hurricane Maria, regarded as the worst natural disaster in recorded history to affect the island and the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Mitch in 1998.  Last year, we saw late night TV host Jimmy Fallon and his crew here for a weekend taping a special show around the fund-raising efforts for the arts after Maria by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Puerto Rico native and the creator of the mega hit musical, Hamilton.

This year, we felt the tremors in our apartment, located on the other side of the island in San Juan, and lost power for several days.

Through it all, we will return to Puerto Rico and we encourage others to visit.

Through it all, we will return to Puerto Rico and we encourage others to visit.  This is a beautiful island with resilient, wonderful people who have endured many national catastrophes along with some corrupt government officials.  Hopefully a new Governor and better and more timely assistance from the United States can put this Island on firmer ground.

Caisimiro in the living room area listening to dad explain how five families reside in this area

Accompanying us on the two-hour trip to Guayanilla was Casimiro Rodriguez, his brother Benny and his wife, Gloria.  They spend parts of the winter here with family.

Casimiro, president of the Hispanic Heritage Counsel of Western New York and a member of the recently formed Puerto Rico Earthquake Relief Fund in Buffalo, is on a fact-finding mission, touring the devastation sites from the earthquake to identify reputable faith-based and community organizations they can work with.

Casimiro inside the homemade shower with a small hose serving as the only stream of water.

“In WNY, we have a community whose hearts beat the same because many of us have family and friends on the island and that is why we rally for them when these disasters strike Puerto Rico,” an exasperated Rodriguez explained Sunday after spending three long days touring the devastation, meeting and consoling those affected by these earthquakes.  He is spending all of this week continuing to tour these areas offering his assistance and most important, hope.

Rodriguez was also a member of the Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fund after Irma and Maria.  Asked to compare both disasters, he pondered the question before responding: “Maria was a bull who destroyed everything and stopped the island from doing anything.  This time it is selected areas with devastation, but the everlasting effect of these earthquakes is the mental state of everyone on the island—anxiety, fear and they are scared.”

Governor Cuomo Visits Puerto Rico

Governor Cuomo and Casimiro Rodriguez. Cas promised the Governor Buffalo would assist again much like it did after Hurricanes Irma and Maria

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, clearly the island’s most popular lawmaker in the United States, visited the damaged municipalities and met with suffering families and the Governor of Puerto Rico on Tuesday, January 14.  He was with members of the New York State Assembly representing New York City, NYC officials and members of his administration.  The following morning, he held a press conference and Rodriquez, my wife and I attended.

Governor Andrew Cuomo met with Debbie, center, and I after the press conference. He called us over because I was wearing the Bills’ cap and then began talking the Bills and Buffalo

“You are not alone,” the governor told the people of Puerto Rico in his opening remarks.  “We are family.  We are together in this and together we will help you.  There is damage to the power system in the southern part of the island that may take over a year to repair and unfortunately this is a continuing situation because the tremors and quakes are continuing, and no one can tell when they will stop.

“There is a particular problem of mental health issues with people living outside of their homes because they are afraid to go inside because of the tremors. We need to help these people and we will,” the governor promised.

“This island is going to need significant funding and the federal government must provide it.  I feel the federal government has been delinquent on that,” the governor said, referring to billions of dollars in funding approved for relief after Hurricane Maria that has not been released by President Donald Trump.

We are going to have to raise our voices.

Cuomo, a former Secretary of the United States Housing and Urban Development under former President Bill Clinton, added: “There is no excuse for HUD not making these funds available for Puerto Rico for hurricane relief from Irma and Maria and now they must evaluate this and help after these earthquakes.  We are going to have to raise our voices.”

Ironically, on the morning of the press conference, current HUD Secretary Ben Carson announced a grant agreement with Puerto Rico as the White House freed billions in relief funding that Congress had approved in late 2017. The White House also severely restricted how the money could be spent.

A local band is getting set to perform. Behind them is a commissary and store where residents can shop for free of items from diapers to chewing gum

This past Thursday, House lawmakers introduced an emergency $3.35 billion aid package to help Puerto Rico rebuild the already storm-battered island.  Their actions will challenge the President who has resisted further assistance.

“The Trump administration has finally showed signs of relenting in its attempts to illegally  withhold vital aid to Puerto Rico and it must provide the rest of the assistance this Congress has already enacted for the island,” Rep. Nita Lowey of New York was quoted as saying.  She is the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Mike Billoni with Derek Jireh Gonzalez-Rodriguez, who could only speak Spanish but according to Cas Rodriguez (no relation) the young boy clearly explained what it just felt like when a 3.9 magnitude quake shook the ground we were standing on.

A Buffalo Jesuit Connection

John Tomczak, whose wife Maureen is the daughter of the late Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin, contacted me after the January 7 earthquake with information about Fr. Lawrence P. Searles, S.J., pastor of San Ignacio de Loyola in San Juan. Turns out Fr. Searles is a Rochester native who is a graduate of McQuaid High School and worked there with Fr. Fred Betti, a former spiritual director at Canisius High School and currently a member of the clergy at St. Michael’s Church in Buffalo.  Tomczak is Jesuit educated and he and Maureen are close friends of Fr. Betti.

Fr. Searles is working with Dominican nuns in Guanica, who have helped set up tent cities for affected residents, many of whom had lost everything.  Their greatest needs, much like those in the mountainside tent community, are tents, cots, blankets and tarps.  In the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria Fr. Searles led his parishioners to help Puerto Ricans on the island who fell through the cracks and were not being assisted by the many disaster agencies.

The temperature was in the 80’s and the sun was blazing down and Derek did not own a hat so I gave him my Bills cap which he told Cas “I will never take this off.” I also gave him and his family finger rosaries of which Derek looked at it and said, “God will help us.”

The Catholic Dioceses of Puerto Rico asked each Parish to take a special collection for earthquake relief this past Sunday while asking parishioners for donations of food, water and supplies which would be transported to the affected areas.  After Sunday Mass with Fr. Searles Debbie and I visited a local Walmart to purchase some tents to donate to the Dominican nuns only to find the shelves empty.  We settled on the remaining sleeping bags, pillows and some blankets which Fr. Searles said would be used in a tent community that evening.

Mike and Debbie meeting with Fr. Searles afterwards to discuss how we can help and how we can mobilize the Jesuit community in Buffalo, through Fr. Betti and John Tomczak to help in the disaster relief

“At some point these quakes will end and at the end of the day, FEMA will rebuild the houses and schools and the government will make sure they have food, water and supplies but for us, this is a long-term project that our parishioners do best—accompanying people in humanity efforts.

“Suicide rates are climbing, anxiety and mental illness is very high, and it is not just among those in the affected areas but all over the island.  How much more can they take, and my major concern is that we are four months away from the Hurricane season and the early word is because water levels are very high right now, this could be another severe season.  That is something we cannot afford,” Fr. Searles said after Sunday’s Mass in English.

One of several superheroes interacting with one of the many children in camp

While the parish will continue to collect monetary donations and items most needed, Fr. Searles and his extremely active and dedicated San Ignacio Parish will do what it does best—accompanying people in need.  They are currently working on several ideas, such as creating an app to connect people so they know they are not alone; publishing a pamphlet for Lent/Easter with reflections on the daily Gospel with the express purpose of consoling those in the process of healing; creating a Telephone Tree or a hotline for those contemplating suicide or having suicide thoughts; bring Lenten and Ignatian retreats to residents in the southern towns of the island and bring back Fr. Searles extremely popular island-wide radio show that was one of the casualties of Maria, but now with hopes it can help people heal.  They hope to create a Go Fund Me page to sponsor the show.

Fr. Searles was extremely pleased to hear about the Puerto Rico Earthquake Relief Fund which was announced in Buffalo on Saturday.  He encouraged financial donations to its Go Fund Me page so the community can properly take care of the Puerto Rican residents who have left the island for the United States, several of which are currently in Buffalo.  He also offered another idea for WNY residents.

Fr. Lawrence P. Searles, S.J. preaches about the need for the parish to help those affected by the earthquakes during his Mass in English last Sunday

“Puerto Rican families are very close so I encourage the people of Buffalo to reach out to those in the community and offer yourself to console and just listen to the Puerto Rican families that live there because I know psychologically, they are hurting because they know what family and friends are going through here and they cannot be here to help.  They need someone to listen.  Someone to be there.  A friend,” he explained. “We have seen it so many times before but in these times of need, prayer and faith work.  We cannot lose sight of that.”

The sign in photo 4 means in English, “The will of God.”

How You Can Help Earthquake Victims in Puerto Rico

  • Visit the Puerto Rico Earthquake Relief Fund Facebook page to opens its GoFundMe campaign which has set a of $50,000.
  • Donations of food, clothing, household items, linens and personal care items can be taken to Ladies of Charity, 1222 Broadway. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and the first Saturday of each month.
  • Food, personal care items and school supplies can be taken to 525 Washington St. Toys and school supplies can be delivered to 20 Herkimer St.
Volunteers from the Adventist Development & Relief Agency construct a recently donated tent in the mountain Tent City overlooking the Caribbean Seaside homes of the people camping there

Some of the cash donations will help people with rent who have relocated to Buffalo from Puerto Rico.

  • If you would like to donate tents, cots, blankets or other items to survive outdoors, Fr. Searles recommends going to an on-line shopping site, such as Walmart, and having the items delivered to his church.  The complete address is:

Rev. Lawrence P. Searles, SJ

Urb. Santa Maria

Calle Narciso 1904

San Juan, PR 00927-6706

787.751.7512

Lead image: From left, Casimiro Rodriguez, father, son and Evelyn Luciano in front of their “new home” inside the mountainside Tent City in the Municipality of Guay

Written by Michael J. Billoni

Michael J. Billoni

A journalist for nearly 50 years who was an award-winning sports reporter for the Buffalo Courier-Express until it closed in 1982. He was the former vice president/general manager of the Buffalo Bisons and a member of the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame. Handled the promotions and publicity for Buffalo’s undefeated heavyweight boxer, “Baby Joe” Mesi. Founder and is managing partner of Billoni Associates. He authored and managed “Robert E. Rich—Memoirs of an Innovator,” the biography of the founder of Rich Products Corp; published 'All In," the memoir of businessman Ronald Zoeller and is currently publishing The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball, the most comprehensive history of professional baseball in the city. It will be released April 17, 2020.

Mike and is wife Debbie love Western New York and always try to help others and encourage positive thoughts

View All Articles by Michael J. Billoni
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