Features

A Hard Homecoming in Puerto Rico

Two Salvation Army officers return to their native land and its devastation after Hurricane Maria.

Major Alberto Suarez  

Major Alberto Suarez was born in Ciudad de Guayama, Puerto Rico. All of his family still lives there, but it had been 25 years since he was last on the island. When Hurricane Maria hit in September, naturally he was very concerned.  All of the island’s power was lost as was the means of communication—thus, Major Suarez did not know if his family was okay and he feared for them. He watched news stories of the extreme flooding occurring in Puerto Rico only to discover that the location they were covering was his hometown, located on the Southern coast. He was devastated and feared the worst. Major Suarez was moved with compassion and concern for his Island home, so he accepted a position on an Emergency Disaster team and deployed to Puerto Rico for two weeks.  

Foundation of a home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The Deployment 
While serving on the EDS team, Major Suarez cared for many of the young corps officers who were nearly burnt out and exhausted. They had been feeding hundreds a day out of small, ill-equipped kitchens or out of the backs of 12 passenger vans. Life had been extremely traumatizing for these compassionate officers, and Major Suarez found a real ministry coming alongside them in support. Most days he would transport cooked meals to another corps an hour away so that this community would be fed and cared for by The Salvation Army.   After delivering these much-needed meals, he would pull the weary corps officer aside and pray for them as well as offer some words of encouragement—life is never too hard or busy to stop and invite the presence of God into those moments, and this is what Major Suarez was doing for these weary Officers.  

The Homecoming 
Finally, after many days of tireless work amongst the hardest hit and most difficult of locations, Major Suarez was able to travel home to check on family that he had not heard from since the storm. As he entered his home town of Ciudad de Guayama, Suarez began to describe what it had looked like when he was younger, the places he would visit and the hospital he was born in. He showed me the city center that had once been proud and was lined with beautiful trees, now only broken and splintered branches remained. The streets were narrow and school had just begun to let out as we wound our way to the home of his sister. Pulling up to the curb, Daisy Suarez stood there with tears of joy, very eager to embrace her brother.  Major Suarez was able to reunite and listen to the concerns of his family.  One of the main concerns is that they may not get power back until March of 2018.  That is a long time to go without refrigeration and cooling in this very warm climate, especially for the elderly. Although there was much relief in Major Suarez’s family reunion, it was also bittersweet. “It is the worst feeling in the world” said Suarez, “to know that I am going to be fine, I will go home to the States where I have everything I need, but my family is staying here and they will have to survive.”  


Major Alberto Suarez and his family.

The neighborhood that Major Suarez grew up in has been forever changed.  Neighbors’ homes are completely destroyed, while relatives are moving in with other relatives because they lost a roof or a wall has crumbled.  Floods swept away lives as well as homes and life has become very, very difficult.  There is no access to clean, drinkable water and it will take many, many months in order to repair the infrastructure.

Major Suarez embraced his sister one last time before departing, knowing that life would continue to be hard for them.  He knows that God is in control and that He will provide, but currently this hardship of recovering everyday life of his hometown of Ciudad de Guayama continues.  

Captain Alex Velasquez 

When Captain Alex Velasquez arrived in Puerto Rico he knew that this was more than another two week term on an Emergency Disaster Team—this was personal. Captain Alex has family on the island, some of whom he had not been able to reach since Hurricane Maria.  After five days of working hard on the ground handing out food and water to many different communities on the island, Captain Alex was finally able to travel to the mountainous region of Las Piedras where his family lives.  


Captain Alex and stepfather, Mario DeJesus.

When Captain Velasquez rounded the corner and found his stepfather Mario DeJesus, his stepfather simply broke down in tears. Mario looked frail, still in shock and severely dehydrated. The trauma he has suffered is immense, and he described the sheer force of the storm. Mario lives in a concrete house, but he had to huddle in a corner as the force of the winds of Hurricane Maria shook the very foundation of his home. Doors were sheared in half, and as Mario tells it, “the ceiling fan was spinning so fast that it peeled the layers of the fan blades apart.” Then the unthinkable happened, the storm blew out all of the windows and the water levels began to rise inside of the house. As the flood waters rose, all of Mario’s furniture began floating and swirling around the room. Mario feared for his life as the water rose dangerously up to his chest while he huddled, frozen in fear. All of his living room furniture, television, and tables were smashed to pieces against the walls. In his bathroom tiles were stripped from the shower walls, its glass doors, shattered and broken. All around him debris that was once his home lay on the ground in broken pieces.   

Captain Alex in a family hug.

After visiting his stepfather, Captain Velasquez then visited his Aunt Lydia Garcia who also lives in this same community of Las Piedras. Her daughter Lucy takes care of her. Their home did not come out unscathed from the storm. Lydia Garcia survives primarily on the fruit and vegetables that they grow in their little farm in the backyard. Lydia even had chickens and rabbits which they used to trade for other essential items of everyday life. All of it is now gone, and life will forever be changed. The gardens and all of its crops were ripped from the soil, nothing remains, and the chickens and rabbits—nowhere to be seen, they simply disappeared—blown away by the storm. Life as they knew it currently no longer exists. “It was a very big answer to prayer that my family is all alive and safe” Captain Velazquez said, “but they have very little food or water—they have nothing left.”   

As aid continues to trickle into Puerto Rico the small mountainous villages, like Las Piedras, are still the hardest places to reach. Things take time, but we serve a God who provides even in the midst of the storm… and the aftermath.  

Captain Scott Strissel is the pastor/corps officer for the Army in Evansville, IN. 

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