Local partnerships boost Hurricane Maria recovery




As a native Puerto Rican, Rev. Jose Nieves of First United Methodist Church in Kissimmee has been through a hurricane or two.

So, he wasn’t overly concerned when Hurricane Maria was bearing down on his birthplace. But just in case, he called his mother back home in Bayamon in the early morning hours on Sept. 20, 2017, to check on her.

And immediately he knew something was drastically different this time.

“I could hear it in her voice. And in the background, it sounded like the walls were crashing in,” Nieves said. “My mom kept saying, ‘It wants to take the house away.’ Then the phone went dead.”

Roadside scene in Rincon, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria showing damage to businesses and power lines.

It would be 79 hours before he would again make contact with his family. In that time, Nieves frantically checked social media and television news reports. He also began preparations for the influx of Puerto Ricans he knew would arrive in central Florida, already home to a large population of the Caribbean islanders.

“I was working on two different paths,” he said. “I couldn’t immediately do anything about my family. But I could take action on what needed to be done here.”

That fast work was needed more than ever, given the veracity of this storm. Hurricane Maria was a deadly Category 5 storm that devastated Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. It is the worst natural disaster on record to affect those islands and the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Jeanne in 2004.

As many as 3,000 people lost their lives in Puerto Rico—a number that is believed to be severely under-reported in the early days of the aftermath. The island, already in economic distress before the storm, still struggles with recovery.

Using his connectional relationships with The United Methodist Church, Nieves and local partners provided relief and follow-up assistance in the wake of the unprecedented disaster. In the days that followed, hundreds of displaced Puerto Ricans arrived at his backyard in the Orlando area.

There was much to be done. Nieves helped create four job fairs and school supplies and clothing assistance for some 3,000 displaced children. They provided more than $750,000 in rental payments and utilities to reduce the number of people living in hotels from 550 to 28.

“We had never dealt with something of this magnitude before,” Nieves said. “Usually people stay in their area after a hurricane. This time, they all came to us, and most with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

He worked closely with Rev. Mary Downey, founder and CEO of Community Hope Center, a Kissimmee-based nonprofit program that assists homeless and low-income families and individuals in the Osceola County area. Nieves said he learned first-hand about the “power of community and unity.”

“We had Methodists pitching in with help and money from all over the country, like Texas, West Virginia, Tennessee,” he said. “The kindness was overwhelming. I never was more proud to be a Methodist.”

One of the biggest boosts came from UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief), a global humanitarian aid and development organization of The United Methodist Church. It provided a $300,000 grant to help with the humanitarian crisis.

“There were so many unique circumstances surrounding Hurricane Maria,” said Pam Garrison, disaster response coordinator in the Florida Conference.

Survivors line up for assistance and relief.

“We had challenges that we hadn’t faced before, so there was a new learning curve. You’re dealing with survivors who literally had their communities ripped away from them. Now they’ve been displaced in a strange new place, compounded by language and medical issues, and even the loss of paperwork so needed to get services and jobs.”

In a recent wrap-up report, Garrison was able to identify what the grant accomplished in the Central Florida relief efforts. The money provided for three district case managers, one supervising case manager and direct services.

They helped survivors relocate to another community in Florida or back to Puerto Rico to connect with another UMCOR case manager there. UMCOR provided deposits and rentals on housing and schooling for the survivors to get a better-paying job.

They secured proper documentation out of Puerto Rico for licensed positions and help with medical issues and provided household goods, transportations and other emergency assistance.

From May 1, 2018, to January 31, 2019, the numbers demonstrated what was accomplished with the $300,000:

  • Provided 167 referrals for clients (83.50 percent) of the 200 case referral goal.

  • Opened 117 client cases and created recovery plans for those people.

  • Contacted 1,823 households through a network of community outreach (520 percent) out of the 350-household goal.

Garrison said the disaster relief was made possible by Downey’s Community Hope Center and Nieves, who also runs Casa de Paz, a bilingual ministry in Kissimmee.

“What I’ve learned over the years that when disaster hits, everyone wants to jump in and help,” she said. “But the best intentions aren’t always the most efficient way to get things done. Developing relationships with agencies and people closest to the situation and working with them is going to be far more successful in the long run.”

Downey agreed, saying the local partnerships already in place meant they were able to be up and running very quickly.

“Jose already had a phenomenal relationship with the school district,” she said. “And at the Hope Center, we had already been working with the hotel community for housing, way before this storm. As overwhelming as this crisis was, we felt very prepared and confident in where to put the money to work.”

Communication between relief workers is essential, she said.

“What you don’t want is everyone working in a silo. That just means a lot of duplication and a lot of wasted dollars,” Downey said.

It also means communicating directing with the survivors to learn their needs for short-term relief and long-term goals. In a survey of some 200 people, the answer was abundantly clear: housing, jobs, learning English as a second language and immediate needs such as clothing, medical and school supplies and food vouchers.

“Nobody is ever really prepared for a disaster,” Downey said. “But if there’s one lesson we learned from this, it’s that it’s better to be proactive than reactive.

“And because of that, I’m very proud of our response to Hurricane Maria. We helped people work through their individual trauma in a very positive and meaningful way.”

Though the UMCOR grant has officially closed, the 2019 hurricane season is just beginning. There’s no predicting if the Central Florida relief workers and Methodists around the country will be called into action once again. But, given the history of storms in this region of the world, Nieves said it would be foolish to think this was a one-time occurrence.

“To happen again so soon would be devastating to the people living there,” he said. “Yet, we can’t take anything for granted. With God’s help and our experience, we will be the beacon of light we’re called to be if the worst happens again.”

—Michelle Bearden is a freelance writer in Tampa.


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