NEW YORK — Nearly 100 days after Hurricane Maria plowed through Puerto Rico on September 20, leaving much of the U.S. territory in ruin, the head of Catholic Charities of New York says the relief effort is “a tale of two islands.”
Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, who has served as executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York since 2001, has visited Puerto Rico twice since Maria made landfall. While his first visit was limited to the capital city of San Juan, his most recent trip last week took him to the more rural parts of the island that were both hardest hit and still suffering through sluggish recovery efforts.
“You have a very dichotomous situation down there now,” Sullivan told Crux. “In parts of San Juan, fortunately, many things are getting back to normal…and then outside of the capital, down to the south of the island, there we saw telephone poles down, wires still all over the street, and no electricity.”
Three months later, half of Puerto Rico is estimated to be without power. In early December, a New York Times investigation unveiled that the actual death count from the storm is very likely over a thousand people – despite the fact that the official government record lists only 64 individuals.
Some experts have predicted by the time the entire island returns to some state of normalcy, it will surpass Hurricane Katrina in terms of overall damage from a natural disaster to the United States.
In an interview with Crux, Sullivan offered a sharp contrast of scenes from his visit: In San Juan, he happened to pass a formal wedding taking place and shopping malls that were full of people carrying on with Christmas shopping. Meanwhile, in a town down south, he passed a store that was open for business but entirely dark due to the lack of power.
“We could only see the shadows of people moving around,” said Sullivan, “and it was rather eerie.”
“In my experience, there is a certain kind of rebound that has happened…but there are places that are still in dire straits where there has not been any type of recovery, and that’s part of the story, too,” he said.
Sullivan said that Catholic Charities of New York has partnered with Caritas of Puerto Rico in various relief initiatives. This most recent trip focused on giving out food and supplies to families in need, along with visiting Head Start sites that are being operated in partnership with a New York based Catholic Charities agency, the New York Foundling, working to promote school readiness for young children.
Earlier this month, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago made a four-day visit on behalf of Pope Francis, and in October, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, made a joint pastoral visit to the island delivering over $800,000 in aid relief.
On Wednesday, the archbishop of San Juan, Roberto Octavio González Nieves, led a prayer vigil at the United States Capitol in an effort to remind congressional leaders of the plight of Puerto Ricans.
Sullivan participated in the interfaith service sponsored by Jubilee USA, and said there should be a two-pronged focus going forward, with a focus on both the present needs, but also the future of the island.
“There are the immediate relief needs, and it’s very important that they continue to be met,” he told Crux. “There is the immediate rebuilding and making sure the basics are there, such as water and power, and that is still months and months away from being fulfilled.”
“I also think that equally important is looking at this as an opportunity to rebuild the economy of Puerto Rico, which everyone admits was in a dire situation prior to the hurricane,” said Sullivan.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to now do things that can help the economy of Puerto Rico and set it on a better future. It’s kind of simple: You create some type of enterprise zones, you devote enough to rebuild an up-to-date infrastructure, and you could probably create some strong economic engines that could provide jobs and a much better future for the people that are there.”
“That too is really part of the recovery efforts that we need to focus on,” said Sullivan.