Still recovering from Maria, Catholics in Puerto Rico assess Fiona’s blow to church buildings | earth beat

Buildings are flooded on Salinas Beach after Hurricane Fiona hit Salinas, Puerto Rico, September 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Alejandro Granadillo)

In August, Catholic Extension, an aid organization that helps poor Catholic communities with things like repairing their churches, sent out 55 tenders to construction companies, asking them to estimate the price of restoring damaged churches. by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

It was the first of hundreds of such “requests for proposals” that would follow, the start of an already overdue process to repair Maria’s $100 billion in damages.

“Of course Fiona then came along and hit Puerto Rico,” said Joe Boland, Catholic Extension’s vice president of missions.

Today, Catholic Extension has a team assessing the impact of the most recent storm on Catholic properties in Puerto Rico, where more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty line and 56% is identified as Catholic in a 2014 Pew survey.

“We are just beginning to reach out to priests and communities,” Manuel Martinez, who leads Catholic Extension’s rebuilding efforts in the island’s six dioceses, said during a call from Puerto Rico on Tuesday, September 20. . “I suspect there will be three or four dioceses heavily affected,” he said, pointing to heavy flooding in the dioceses of Mayagüez, Ponce and Caguas.

The more than 1,000 churches damaged by Maria are considered eligible for a $400 million reimbursement from the federal government, according to Boland.

Karixia Ortiz Serrano, senior public affairs specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Puerto Rico, told Religion News Service in an email that FEMA has set aside just over $88 million to fix Catholic properties damaged by both Hurricane Maria in 2017 and recent earthquakes. Boland said more than 1,000 church buildings could be eligible for up to $400 million.

The problem, according to Martinez, is that repairs have to be paid for up front, with FEMA reimbursements coming later. “We have to go out and spend money, we don’t need that money back,” he said.

Participants in Catholic Extension's Mission Immersion trip to the dioceses of Puerto Rico visit the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Guayanilla on June 15, 2022. The church was severely damaged by an earthquake in January 2020. (RNS Photo)

Participants in Catholic Extension’s Mission Immersion trip to the dioceses of Puerto Rico visit the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Guayanilla on June 15, 2022. The church was severely damaged by an earthquake in January 2020. (RNS Photo/Juan Guajardo, courtesy of Catholic Extension)

“Priests are trying to serve their communities with leaky roofs, windows that haven’t been repaired and replaced, paint in facilities that’s scuffed and deteriorated,” Martinez said. “And if you rush to make repairs, you can jeopardize the funds that are supposed to come to you.”

In addition, he said, Catholic Extension suffered a series of setbacks that prevented repairs from proceeding. Initially, many dioceses were unaware that they were eligible to apply for assistance. Catholic Extension guided dioceses through the application process, but Martinez said the task was complicated.

“They keep moving the goal posts, so to speak,” Martinez said, referring to FEMA. “When you think you’ve provided all the documentation you needed to provide, all the proof of ownership, the insurance documentation, someone down the line reviews the project again and asks you to almost go back to square one. “

Martinez added that Hurricane Maria was so catastrophic that it bankrupted many of the island’s insurance companies, leaving Catholic groups who have paid insurance premiums for years with nothing to show for it.

Asked about repair delays, FEMA’s Ortiz Serrano pointed to the complex eligibility requirements for private nonprofit organizations, which can receive financial assistance through FEMA’s public assistance program if their facilities were damaged by a major disaster. Once FEMA allocates funds, it is up to a Puerto Rican government entity to disburse them.

“It is the responsibility of the applicant to substantiate their claim for eligibility. If the applicant does not provide sufficient documentation to support their claim for eligibility, FEMA cannot provide PA funding for the work,” said Ortiz Serrano.

The damaged gymnasium at Colegio Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico in 2019. The school was damaged in 2017 by Hurricane Maria.  (RNS Photo/Courtesy of Catholic Extension.)

The damaged gymnasium at Colegio Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico in 2019. The school was damaged in 2017 by Hurricane Maria. (RNS Photo/Courtesy of Catholic Extension.)

Martinez described a chapel in Toa Baja, on the island’s north coast, which has been closed for five years due to water damage. At a Catholic school in Vega Baja, a few miles away, the preschool building was destroyed, an entire wing remains unusable and the basketball court was ransacked.

“Unfortunately, parents who want to put their children in Catholic school, they go there and they see the establishment and there is no way to enroll their child there,” Martinez said. “So they lose their registration, and it’s a vicious cycle that makes things worse if those schools don’t get help quickly.”

Many damaged properties are historic and require careful preservation. The 500-year-old Cathedral of Old San Juan, the second oldest church in the Western Hemisphere, suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Maria that has yet to be repaired.

To prevent buildings from being damaged in future storms, Catholic Extension is working with FEMA to install wind-resistant windows, reseal roofs and replace some building materials with storm-resistant options.

Reverend Enrique Camacho, director of Catholic charity Caritas de Puerto Rico, said he took shelter from Hurricane Fiona at his parents’ home in Guaynabo, a suburb of the capital, San Juan, while strong winds and continual rains battered the island. from Saturday (September 17) afternoon to Monday evening. Guaynabo was spared the worst of the hurricane, which hit the central and southern parts of the island most directly.

Camacho told RNS that Catholic infrastructure is not just about saving church property. This is essential in Puerto Rico because the Catholic Church is on the front lines of disaster response, providing impromptu shelter and distributing food and aid. Caritas de Puerto Rico, he noted, plans to buy 50 generators for those who still have no electricity following Fiona.

“That’s where we work the most, helping parishes get organized. The best way to help people is with parishes and parishioners. They know who is most in need,” he said. -he declares.

Boland agreed. “What makes the Catholic Church of Puerto Rico unique is that it is located all over the island,” he said. “So even in some of these hard-to-reach communities that can often be cut off at times like this, the Catholic Church is there. It’s often the first organization to show up.”

It is precisely the church’s commitment to helping those in need that inspires Martinez to remain committed to seeing Catholic buildings repaired. “This is my land, this is my church. I’m Puerto Rican, I live here and have worked for the church in one way or another for seven years. It’s in my heart, it’s in my blood, it’s in my DNA,” he said.

“The church is a main protagonist in the recovery of an island that has been hit by several disasters over the past few years. And the primary focus of the church is always, who needs help?”

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