I recently had the privilege of interviewing Judit Cruz, a nurse from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, who was visiting Chicago to attend Catholic Extension’s health initiative. She stopped by Catholic Extension’s office before heading to the airport to fly back to Puerto Rico, and all available space in her baggage was filled to capacity with donated batteries. As we talked for almost two hours, the importance of having basic necessities like batteries on the island became dramatically clear. She painted a bleak picture of daily life in Puerto Rico, but also expressed the resilience of the Puerto Rican people to overcome current challenges, and the importance of the Catholic Church in helping them to do so.
Daily life in Puerto Rico is still an unfathomable nightmare. While news reports state that large portions of the island now have gas and water, Judit said that most of that success is limited to San Juan, and the rest of the island remains thirsty and in the dark. Her children have to finish their homework before darkness rolls in around 5 p.m. A power inverter allows them to use the family car’s battery to run other appliances in the home, but gas is still a rare commodity. Judit said she once had to pull to the side of the road and shut her car off during a traffic jam because she otherwise wouldn’t have enough gas to get home.
Water is pumped through the faucets about once a week, but even that water source is contaminated, which is leading to major health problems for those who are uninformed or just desperate for water. She said that she buys a gallon of water for her family of four to share throughout a week. When it rains, she runs outside to collect as much rainwater as possible. Spending a week in Chicago, she said she winced whenever she saw people throwing away half-full water bottles — knowing that her family and others back home would do anything to have more water for drinking, cooking, washing and other essential functions we take for granted.
As a nurse, she is keenly aware of the health problems Hurricane Maria has wrought on the island. With fresh food in short supply, most people are subsisting on canned meats — a terrible diet for anyone, but especially people like her diabetic son.
Despite the daily difficulties she and her family are still facing, Judit counts herself among the lucky ones on the island. Her family’s home is made of concrete and became the gathering place during the storm for other family members whose homes would not survive Maria’s destructive winds as easily. Even so, the fear was undeniable as the storm passed through overnight and into the morning — blowing out windows, knocking out power and pulling off roofs of neighboring homes. As she took brief glances out the window during the storm, she saw parked cars being invisibly pushed down the street by gale force winds.
After that sleepless night, Judit recalled emerging from her home to see a neighborhood in chaos. Maria spared nothing in its path. Walls caving in to expose bedrooms and kitchens. Wooden remains where houses sat hours earlier. Even the trees and leaves were burned black from the force of the winds.
With no power, no water and little hope for survival, those who rode out the storm turned immediately to their local Catholic parish for physical, emotional and spiritual support. Judit says the Church is the center of life in Puerto Rico — and often literally in the center of the city — in a way that most Americans probably can’t comprehend. In a time of ultimate uncertainty, Cruz and her neighbors instinctually sought out the Church for refuge.
When donations of food, water and other supplies began to arrive, the Catholic Church provided the best access to these precious resources, without the red tape and bureaucracy of government aid. If you came to the church needing water and there was a bottle to be given, it was yours.
This is why Catholic Extension’s support of the Church in Puerto Rico is such a crucial avenue for getting aid directly to the people in the hurricane-ravaged streets. By offering support to the Church, priests and other staff are able to resume their ministries to assist with the ongoing humanitarian effort and provide support to these communities.
Judit broke down as she talked about the hospitals’ inability to maintain power after the storms, which led to the unintended deaths of people hooked up to life support systems throughout the hospital.
How do you tell a couple who just lost their home in the storm that now their premature baby who otherwise would have survived has died because the hospital’s generator ran out of gas?
More than a month after Hurricane Maria, the plight of the Puerto Rican people is still heart-wrenching. As fellow Catholics and fellow Americans, we need to support these communities as they rebuild their lives and communities. With an unprecedented number of hurricanes hitting various areas over the last couple months, we have grown desensitized to the destruction and the impact these storms are still having on people’s lives. Even though the media has largely moved on, Puerto Rico and other affected areas in the Caribbean are still reeling.
Near the end of our conversation, I asked Judit what she wanted people to know about her and her fellow Puerto Ricans. With tears streaming down her face, she gave an answer that still rings in my ears:
“We are more than a news story. We are people.”