From San Juan to San Juan: Halos and Hearts in Puerto Rico
In September 2017, Hurricane Irma, a category-five storm, skimmed by Puerto Rico on the north, causing three deaths and widespread power outage.
Two weeks later on September 20, Hurricane Maria rammed the island, crumpling the entire power grid and blowing frame houses off their foundations.
While many cinder block buildings retained their structure, they sustained other severe damage.
Ronald Acosta, in the KSL documentary, “Serving Others One by One,” said, “When I saw the winds coming through and people’s tin roofs were going up in the air like kites, it really shocked me.”
Later, FEMA reported that 60,000 roofs needed repair.
The mega storm also disrupted Puerto Rico’s industry which produced pharmaceuticals, electronics, textiles, and medical supplies, demolished communication networks except one radio station, and devastated its agriculture with winds flattening plantain fields; uprooting coconut, banana, and coffee trees; blasting cattle out of the fields; and wiping out many roads.
At the time, Ted and I did what we could by contributing to our church’s Humanitarian Fund, but it didn’t seem enough as we read about the heroic efforts of other Utahns to “Light Up Puerto Rico,” an organization founded by Elder Jorge M. Alvarado and his wife Cari Lu Alvarado, both from Puerto Rico.
Missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who had either served in Puerto Rico or among Puerto Ricans on the mainland powered the efforts, supplying solar lights, solar generators, fans, and water purification systems.
Despite the Corps of Engineers’ work to replace the snapped power poles and downed lines, some people, especially those in the mountainous regions, remained without electricity and running water for 11 months.
Worried about the lengthy recovery process, one Puerto Rican said, “I’m afraid you’ll forget us. Please don’t forget us.”
He was right to worry. Nearly 3,000 people died in the hurricanes and their aftermath, including those in intensive care, those on dialysis, those in need of urgent medical care, and many elderly people from heat, lack of refrigeration, unclean water, and despair.
Juanita Rivera, in a 2017 Deseret News article by Amy Donaldson, said some people buried loved ones in their backyards because the morgues were so overwhelmed.
Then, beginning on December 28, 2019 and continuing into January 2020, an earthquake “swarm” shook the island with 11 quakes measuring a magnitude of five or greater. Then in March, like the rest of the world, COVID-19 struck, causing extensive unemployment and 1,588 deaths to date.
Despite the pandemic, my hubby and I were coasting through fall when, on October 10, Kirk Mosley, Ted’s classmate, texted and asked if we’d like to go to Puerto Rico to replace roofs damaged in the hurricanes and earthquakes.
Still haunted by the words, “Please don’t forget us,” we decided to go even though I have no construction skills, speak no Spanish, and have a fairly severe case of acrophobia. Ned Smith from Blanding also volunteered.
The opportunity came through an organization called Halos and Hearts founded by Ron Batt (pronounced with a soft “a” sound) who served in Puerto Rico in the 1980’s as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He flew to the island after the hurricanes to help with the “Light Up Puerto Rico” efforts.
After several weeks of handing out solar lights and food, he returned to Utah, but said, “I just couldn’t get those images out of my mind, and it came to the point where I really wanted to do something.” So he quit his job and returned to Puerto Rico full time.
As a contractor and the founder of Halos and Hearts, he networks with community leaders to find people who still need help rebuilding, coordinates the volunteers, directs the construction, and orders and manages the materials.
Ted and I decided to fly out of the Kansas City airport so we could visit with family members whom we hadn’t seen for a year because of the pandemic.
Since Puerto Rico required a negative COVID test 72 hours before arriving on the island, I made an appointment with a Kansas City urgent care clinic for a rapid test on Saturday, December 5.
After we received the results, we visited our son David and his family on Saturday and Sunday. They took us to the airport Sunday evening, and we flew out early the next morning, arriving in San Juan, Puerto Rico at 3:30 p.m.
After we made it through the airport COVID check, Kirk and Ned picked us up in a rental car and took us sightseeing at the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, also known as Fort El Morro. Despite our jet lag, we were fascinated by the fort, San Juan Bay, and Puerto Rico’s complex history.
Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1493, beginning Spain’s colonization of the country then occupied by its original inhabitants, the Taino.
Because San Juan Bay was the first port where European ships could restock, Puerto Rico became key in controlling much of Latin America, and the English, Dutch, and French vied violently for domination.
In addition to the Europeans, pirates also plagued the area, so Spain began building the fort in 1539, taking 49 years to construct it and adding on during the next two centuries.
The visitor’s center was closed because of COVID, but we viewed the sprawling fort structure from the outside. It contained perilously perched guard towers, cannon stations, vaults, and dungeons.
After we explored the grounds and spotted our first iguanas, we took a short tour of old San Juan’s colorful buildings and streets (one street was paved with blue bricks) and then headed to Bayamón where we were staying.
Although none of us had slept much since Saturday night, we would start work at 6:30 the next morning, or 3:30 Blanding time.