Puerto Rico (the Rich Port) is the “Isla de Encanto” (Island of Enchantment). The U.S. territory was changed from a tropical vacation paradise; cruise ship destination; and coffee, sugarcane and banana supplier into a vast, desolate land of fields without vegetation but with fallen trees and empty hotels and harbors — all within 48 hours and the passage of Hurricane Maria. The storm, which developed almost without notice in the wake of Hurricane Irma, would roar through the Caribbean — leaving in its wake a devastation not seen for almost a century.
My small role in this story started a week before Maria raged across Puerto Rico. My stepmother, Carmen, and other family members live in the southern part of the island and were working to recover from Hurricane Irma. After talking to my stepmother, I talked to my wife, and we decided it would be good for me to go down and help out for a couple weeks. I purchased my ticket and prepared to leave on Friday, Sept. 22.
I knew Maria was headed toward the island, but I also knew that it was only a Category 1 or 2 at that point. My wife and I had weathered a couple hurricanes when we lived in Puerto Rico and I was not worried. After reviewing the forecast, I decided to go earlier in order to be there before the storm crossed through the area. I changed my plans and flew to Puerto Rico on Sunday, Sept. 17.
I landed in Puerto Rico to find that Maria had grown to a Category 3. The next day, the emergency preparedness began in earnest. My cousin, who is the mayor in the town where my family lives, held a meeting and assigned me to work in the shelter after the storm to help calm the people. I helped my family to prepare the best we could, and we moved to a safer area. The next 36 hours were some of the most terrifying I can ever remember.
Time and time again, I was reminded of the passage of Scripture where the disciples called out to Jesus as He slept in the boat (Matthew 8:23–27, Mark 4:35–41 and Luke 8:22–25). I prayed without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17) for the safety of my family and all those who were in the path of the storm — in the mountains, on the shore, in wooden houses, in apartments, in cities, in tiny villages all over the island. As the storm began to calm nearly a day and a half later, we began to glimpse the enormity of the damage. It was almost too overwhelming to take in.
Over the next few days, I spent time working in the shelter listening, comforting, praying and offering encouragement to those souls who had lost everything they had. I was also thankful to be there as a help and support for my family during this most difficult time. As a chaplain, I am thankful I can serve wherever and whenever God provides the opportunity. Because I am bilingual in Spanish, I was able to hear the stories of those who needed to share their sorrows and also to offer them a comforting word and prayer.
Three and a half weeks after the storm, I was home with my wife in the States. My work continues at a distance: spreading the word of the ongoing need of the people of Puerto Rico, sharing the needs of those who are trying to do everyday life without basic needs such as electricity and water. I am thankful I was able to be the hands and feet of Jesus and to serve those in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Charles “Chaz” Maldonado is a located elder of the Genesis Conference at the Jamestown Free Methodist Church in Jamestown, New York, and a chaplain working with hospice/palliative care.1