James King of the New Jersey Catholic Conference returned earlier this month from Puerto Rico after supporting Catholic Charities USA’s relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Following is a reflection of his experiences:
Since returning from my deployment in Puerto Rico to work with the Catholic Charities USA Disaster Response unit, I have been asked two questions: “What was it like?” and “What can we do to help?”
Most times, before I could answer the former, the questioner would interject, “Horrible, right?”
During my three-week deployment, I saw firsthand the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Landslides destroyed homes, roads were washed away by floodwaters, and trees and vegetation are gone.
The images of New Jersey post Superstorm Sandy are the closest examples I have to describe the immense destruction and devastation I witnessed in Puerto Rico.
So yes, what I saw was horrible. However, what I experienced left a greater impression.
I witnessed the resiliency and determination of the Puerto Rican people. This reminded me of people’s determination to rebuild and recover after Superstorm Sandy.
Their determination was never more apparent than in my daily encounters with the staff at the Caritas of Puerto Rico (Catholic Charities in Puerto Rico is called Caritas).
When I was not out on supply runs delivering food, water and generators to people living in the remote areas of Puerto Rico, I would work out of the Caritas office. While there, I had the opportunity to talk with the staff and volunteers.
One Caritas staffer shared that during Hurricane Maria, her home’s roof sustained significant damage. For several weeks after the storm, she was forced to sleep in a house with no roof to protect her and her family from the elements, in addition to facing the daily struggle to obtain food and water. Despite her personal challenges, she continues to travel two hours one way to the Caritas office.
I learned that her story was not unique. More than 50 percent of the staff lost their homes and personal belongings but continue to go to work to help, serve and comfort. When I would ask how and why they continue to serve, the response was unanimous – “Because this is what Christ would want us to do. And if I have faith in Christ, everything will work out.”
It was not until I returned home that I realized that my time in Puerto Rico coincided with the five-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. I viewed my work as an opportunity to “pay it forward.”
So I ask people to remember New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy. I ask them to remember the outpouring of support and help we received from complete strangers. I ask them to remember the feeling of relief when they received food, water and other items.
This is why I offer two suggestions on how people can help. First, continue to pray for the people of Puerto Rico and those helping with the recovery efforts. Second, consider supporting Catholic Charities USA’s work in Puerto Rico through monetary donations. These donations are the most effective way to help Catholic Charities USA provide those most in need with necessary supplies, such as food, water, hygiene kits and medical supplies.
I must offer several “thank yous.” I want to thank the Lord for providing me with the opportunity to assist Puerto Rico during this time. I was reminded daily of the struggles New Jersey faced after Superstorm Sandy. I would recall the outpouring of support and assistance our state received during our recovery efforts.
I want to thank my wife, Sarah. When people offer a kind word on the sacrifice I made going to Puerto Rico, I quickly correct them by saying, “I had the easy job. Sarah had the hard job of caring for our three children, maintaining the household, and ensuring life remained as normal as possible in my absences. She deserves the real credit.” I also have to include our numerous family and friends that supported her during this time.
I have to thank my coworkers at the New Jersey Catholic Conference, especially my boss, Pat Brannigan, executive director. Under his leadership, the staff ensured my daily responsibilities at the conference did not go unattended. In addition, they checked in on my wife and children daily to ask if there was anything they could do to help my family.
Finally, I have to thank the Catholic Charities USA staff, especially Kim Burgo, senior director for disaster operations. Her leadership during the deployment was essential to the success of the work we conducted in Puerto Rico.
James King is the director of the Office of Social Concerns for the New Jersey Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey.