Hurricane devastation hits close to home for local church

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By: 
Deb Biechler
Divino Salvador is an island church with more than 240 members.

To the membership of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Middleton, the devastation in Puerto Rico from hurricanes Irma and Maria wasn’t just television news. It’s a personal story about people who they know and have developed a relationship with through a sister-church partnership since 2013.

Well before the hurricanes, some of St. Luke’s members traveled to Divino Salvador, the island church with more than 240 members.  They’ve shared worship, broken bread, sung together and become friends with the pastor and congregants there.

Between hurricanes, Pastor Gabriel Nanco wrote to St. Luke’s to let them know how they were faring. 

 

“Dear family in Wisconsin,

 

I am sending you this message to let you know how we are doing during the imminent passing of Hurricane Maria through Puerto Rico.

Unlike hurricane Irma, this hurricane that is arriving tomorrow will severely impact the island. We need your prayers and support.

On Sunday, September 10, we had a service without electricity. A brother of the property committee brought a portable power plant, allowing us to connect six fans and the keyboard. It really was hot, but we were happy to be able to get together. The church was full.

Electricity returned to Cataño on Monday, September 11. There are still places in Puerto Rico where they continue without electricity (like Dorado, where pastor Carmelo lives).

On Tuesday morning, we will be with a group of brothers in the church, securing windows again, disconnecting equipment and protecting the property.

Most families are already prepared. We know that we will have many days ahead without electricity and without water. We pray that God will protect our lives, since Mary is potentially devastating.

I want to sincerely thank you for your efforts to help us financially. At this moment, what we most need are your prayers.”

 

St. Luke’s was relieved to hear that Hurricane Irma only caused minor damage to the church that they’ve grown to love.  But, when Maria hit, the news grew worse, not only for the church building itself,  but for many of its members.

Excerpts from the letter that arrived from Pastor Nanco after Hurricane Maria hit give a detailed account of the ways that people had to cope both during and in the immediate days after.

Querida familia en Wisconsin,

Thank you so much for your messages, prayers and support.

As you know ... Hurricane Maria has left severe damages in the whole infrastructure of Puerto Rico.  A week after the hurricane, most of the population doesn’t have water, power, communication (phone, Internet) and with very limited access to basic services.  For instance, to get $20 dollars of gasoline (some gas stations only allow you to get $10 dollars), I did a six hours line (from 3 AM to 9AM).  You can only pay for the services by cash, but again, you must do a long and extensive line to withdraw money from some of the ATM machines.  

I’m saying “some” because there are limited ATMs or banks functioning.  Actually, you must [wait in line] for almost everything.  If you are going to buy groceries, medicines or, whatever.

In addition, you must ration your gasoline (and your water as well to drink, bathe, etc.) and use your car for important needs. During the first two days after hurricane Maria, I consumed all my gasoline visiting families and checking out the conditions of our church. So, I couldn’t visit all the families.

You have difficulties finding opened gas stations because a lot of them were destroyed by the hurricane.  Also, you have problems finding ice bags or drinking water which has been rationalized and, as you know, we have a hot weather.

To send you this message, I must go out from my home and drive for about 30 minutes to one of the few communication towers that are still standing up on the San Juan highway to get some signal.

At this moment, we don’t know anything from the half of the families of the Divino Salvador Church. So far, we know that we have five families that lost absolutely everything (houses, cars, clothes, furniture, other possessions).  Some of them, have family members with special needs and we must help them with urgency.

One of the cases is Nilda Feal. She almost drowned in the flood that suffered her very poor community. She is staying temporarily in the home of another family of our church.   She only could rescue her small dog and the cloth she was wearing during the flood (hurricane). Absolutely, nothing else.

We have other families that didn’t lose their homes, but have huge and important damages on [them].  Thanks to God, all of us are alive and nobody was severely wounded.  

During the hurricane, we lost the roof of our temple (chapel). Because of the intensity of the rains, our temple was flooded. By this time, and for a very long time, we are going to meet in the meeting room beside the temple (chapel).  Pastor Carmelo mentioned [to] me the asbestos problem that this roof has, and because of that, we decided not to use the temple (chapel) anymore until we are able to manage appropriately this important problem. At this moment, this roof is exposed to water (rains) and runs the risk of falls.

All of us had been affected in one way or in another by this hurricane. In my home, we had some damages, but aren’t as big of other families. The devastation is huge and everywhere, [keeping] all of us totally uncommunicated and without the possibility of going out of our homes for some days because of the roads conditions.  Some towns or areas didn’t have any access to go in or out. It’s sad to see this beautiful island in these conditions.

The spirit of gratitude, despite the hardships, is an inspiration to members of St. Luke’s here in Middleton.  Although so many supplies are needed, money is what is needed the most.  Donations of cash can be stretched much farther than sending supplies directly, due to high shipping costs.

An exception was made, however, when it came to quilts.  The Women’s Quilting Group of St. Luke’s makes quilts to be sent wherever disaster relief is needed.  The decision of where to send the quilts is usually made at a national level.

Ten quilts of their last batch were retained from the lot to be sent directly to the sister church in Puerto Rico.  A parishioner, who prefers to remain anonymous, covered the over $130 bill for postage.

Until recently wire transfers of money had to wait because banks were not able to open without electricity.  Food and other supplies were obtained on credit, through the church, for families in need.

St. Luke’s parish will continue to fundraise within their church to further help the members of Divino Salvador.  People outside of the church are welcome to donate to help the hurricane victims as well.

To make a donation or to ask questions, contact, Randy Riemer - Business Manager at 608.831.6084 or rriemer@stlukes-elca.org.  Checks, made out to St. Luke’s and earmarked Hurricane Fund can be mailed to the church at 7337 Hubbard Ave, Middleton, WI 53562.

 

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