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KISSIMMEE—For the two weeks following Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic arrival in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Pembroke Pines resident Marta Gonzalez was a nervous wreck.
|Hurricane Maria made world headlines when it struck Puerto Rico as a category-4 storm in September. With the island experiencing widespread devastation, the work to rebuild will likely go on for many years.|
She anxiously tuned in to WAPA-TV, the television station based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to watch the news coverage of the devastation in her homeland. And, she fervently prayed for the safety of her 82-year-old mother, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews living in the coastal Puerto Rican town of Arecibo.
Despite her family’s pleadings, Gonzalez’ mother had refused to leave her home and seek refuge in a shelter before the Category 4 hurricane struck Puerto Rico.
“It was very scary. She stayed by herself, and I had no way of knowing if she was OK,” Gonzalez said. “All of the electrical and communications towers were destroyed. It was two long weeks before I could speak to my family.”
When Gonzalez finally reached her mother, the tenacious senior citizen was busy tending to her orchids and cleaning debris in her garden.
“She had no electricity or water, but she was just carrying on like normal,” Gonzalez said. “We were very fortunate. All of my family was fine.”
Other residents of the island territory weren’t as lucky.
“Arecibo is on the Atlantic Ocean and has two rivers intersecting it, so there was a great deal of flooding,” Gonzalez said. “But it was even worse in the mountain areas. Many people lost their homes. I cried when I watched the coverage on TV.”
Motivated by the heartbreaking scenes from her homeland, Gonzalez didn’t hesitate to sign on when she learned the Disaster Recovery Ministry of the Florida Conference was offering an Early Response Team (ERT) workshop to train Spanish-speaking volunteers who wanted to aid the residents of Puerto Rico.
“I just want to go and help in whatever way I can,” said Gonzalez, a longtime member of Nueva Vida United Methodist Church in Pembroke Pines. “These are my people. This is my country. I have to do something.”
Gonzalez and her husband, Pablo Hernandez, were among 23 bilingual volunteers who traveled to First United Methodist Church in Kissimmee Nov. 11 to take part in the day-long training, said Icel Rodriguez, director of Global Missions for the Florida Conference.
“They represented churches all the way from Tallahassee to Pembroke Pines,” Rodriguez said.
Working in conjunction with the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the United Methodist early response teams are made up of volunteers who respond to disaster zones at the invitation of local emergency management officials.
“Once they participate in training and pass a background check, they are certified as Early Response Volunteers with UMCOR and receive an UMCOR ERT badge,” Rodriguez said. “As badge holders, they are eligible to receive national certification to assist following a U.S. disaster.”
The goal is to help, not hinder disaster relief efforts, she said. Too often, well-intentioned volunteers head into a disaster without understanding the needs of the community.
“Our first response is to jump on a plane to help, but we don’t want to create chaos with our presence,” Rodriguez said. “Too many times in a crisis, you see a duplication of services, and you aren’t really meeting the needs of those impacted.”
Gonzalez’ husband, 65, has been a certified ERT volunteer since retiring several years ago.
“He’s a skilled handyman and has gone to Peru, Cuba and Honduras to help people rebuild homes and build shelters,” she said. “But with my full-time job as a social worker and case manager, I was never able to go with him. Now I’m semi-retired and work only one day a week. It’s given me the flexibility to join him.”
|Presented by the Disaster Recovery Ministry of the Florida Conference, an Early Response Team (ERT) training for Spanish-speaking volunteers was held at FUMC Kissimmee in November.|
While Gonzalez doesn’t anticipate crawling around on rooftops making repairs, the 63-year-old said there’s still plenty she can do to help.
“I can cook. I can clean. I can do case management. I can serve as an interpreter,” she said. “I have the energy and the desire to help.”
In fact, said Rodriguez, the ERT training goes beyond simply learning how to put up tarp roofs and operate a chainsaw.
“They learn to create a caring presence in disaster areas on behalf of The United Methodist Church,” she said. “While they may be responsible for cleanup, making homes safe and making emergency repairs, they also learn how to be productive and caring while causing no harm or being a burden to the affected community.”
While UMCOR’s priority is to provide trained volunteers who can help disaster victims to be safe, sanitary and secure until insurance or other help is available, they also offer emotional and spiritual assistance to survivors.
“These people are going through a lot, and the trauma will be with them forever,” Gonzalez said. “But it helps to know someone cares. Simple acts like sharing food and helping clean up debris can be a big comfort.”
Gonzalez and her husband will join an ERT in Puerto Rico on Dec. 18 for their first disaster relief mission as a couple.
“But I hope I have a chance to join him on many more trips,” she said.
In the meantime, Rodriguez is planning a second ERT training workshop in South Florida for others interested in helping during disasters.
--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance journalist based in Valrico.