A deadly natural disaster thousands of miles away has turned into a good will venture for a group of Owatonna church members.
Five people from Owatonna and four others from the Twin Cities area spent a week in late March in Puerto Rico trying to help families devastated nearly two years ago by Hurricane Maria. Pastor Loren Olson of Owatonna United Methodist Church led the group, which consisted of Carl and Denise Wieman, Steve Mundy and Mary Olson of Owatonna.
The Minnesota delegation stayed at Camp Cumbres del Calvario, Arecibo, which is about 60 miles west of San Juan. They worked on houses located in the mountains.
“When you fly into San Juan, its blue tarp city all over the place,” said Carl Wieman referring to the devastation still noticeable across the region. “It’s hard to believe. It was bad in the mountain areas,” he added.
Hurricane Maria was a Category 5 hurricane that devastated Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in September 2017. It is regarded as the worst natural disaster to affect those islands and is also the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Jeanne in 2004. Total losses from the hurricane are estimated at upwards of $91 billion, mostly in Puerto Rico, ranking it as the third-costliest tropical cyclone on record. Nearly 3,000 people were killed from the deadly storm.
“It’s unbelievable what they went through,” Wieman related. “They were on an island with no place to run. You can’t go anywhere. There was no place to hide.”
Wieman compared the hurricane to tornadoes that Minnesotans experience, but over a much longer time frame. He said tornadoes are often done within minutes while hurricanes, which happened to be the case with Maria, drag on for 24 hours or longer. “You hope the house you’re in will survive it,” he said.
There is still significant damage noticeable all over the area, Wieman said. But, he added, some houses had no real damage depending on how well they had been built.
The Minnesota crew broke up into three groups and paired up with full-time contractors to work on houses. Each group also had a translator to help everyone communicate throughout the process.
During the mission effort, Wieman and others mounted crossbeams, built doorframes, put in doors and mounted electrical boxes, kitchen sinks and cabinets among many other things. Steel beams are used on the ceilings to withstand storms, according to Wieman.
The hardest part, Wieman said, was chiseling the cement walls. “Drilling holes and chiseling was unbelievably hard,” he noted. Most of the houses were constructed with cement blocks.
While the Minnesota group worked on three houses throughout the week, it completely finished off one house that had been previously started by another group.
What made the project especially gratifying for Wieman was the appreciation they received from Puerto Rico residents. “The people thank all of us every day for coming to help them rebuild,” Wieman said. He added sometimes they brought them food and drinks as they worked on their houses.
“It’s just amazing,” Wieman said of the mission effort. “They appreciate the volunteers. They are thanking us all the time.”
An application process based on need decides which houses are going to be repaired. Low-income families occupy many of the homes.
Church mission groups come into the area every week. In fact, Wieman’s group was on a waiting list for more than eight months before it could finally go. The Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church has been coordinating the trips for more than a year.
“It’s great that so many people want to go and help with this mission,” Wieman said. He noted there are many other Methodist groups going from other parts of the country over the next few months.
The Methodist church throughout America has raised more than $22 million in donations for the Puerto Rico project.
Asked if he had ever done mission work like this before, Wieman responded, “Never, that’s what was scary.” He has volunteered for Toys for Tots and Multiple Sclerosis motorcycle ride in the past, but this is a first for church missions.
“It was fun to try something different, especially when the people appreciate it,” Wieman said. “There’s not enough money that can make it any better.”
Puerto Rico needs people to visit their country now more than ever before, Wieman noted. “What they need now is tourism to bring the economy back,” he said, adding there are many attractions to see throughout the country.