Early on Wednesday, September 20, Hurricane Maria — a powerful Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds — made direct landfall on Puerto Rico. It was described as “apocalyptic” for the island’s 3.4 million residents.
Red Cross responder Chuck Bennett was assigned to go out in a two person team, to an area called Mana. His partner was Kimberly Moors, a 22-year-old Belgian native and a new responder. Kimberly, a vivacious university student living in Puerto Rico, was also fluent in Spanish, English, Dutch and French.
The team picked up water filters, solar-powered lights, and other supplies before heading toward the remote area of Mana. Along the way they had to navigate narrow, steep mountainous roads and their first of many washed-out bridges.
Once in the Mana area, the team started going door to door, with Kimberly knocking and announcing loudly in Spanish who they were and what their intent was. When Chuck and Kimberly found someone at home, they gathered the home owner and nearby neighbors, and provided a 10- to 15-minute training session on how to use and maintain the water filters. After filtering the dirty water, Chuck and Kimberly drank some of the purified water to demonstrate their confidence in the filters.
Despite many hazardous driving challenges, Chuck and Kimberly managed to deliver filters, solar lanterns, and supplies to about 35 families that afternoon.
Chuck says, “In every case we were met with ‘gracias mil’ (a thousand thanks) over and over. Basic needs like a dry roof overhead and drinking water, not to mention food and medical attention needed to be met for millions after the storm. Despite the hardships, the local people had an amazingly positive attitude. One woman we helped was staying in a one-room shack with her two boys. The shack used to be a four-room house built on a steep hillside, but it had been blown away during the hurricane.”
Another woman told the team about a nun, Sister Louisa Rodriguez, who lived a few miles away. The woman was very worried about Sister Louisa, who was 85 years old, in poor health, and living without power or water. The woman drew a map for Chuck and Kimberly; even though it was getting late and beyond their assigned area, they knew they needed to check on her.
As Sister Louisa emerged from her home, she shuffled down her steep driveway to greet Chuck and Kimberly. “You are an answer to my prayers,” she said relieved and smiling. The team learned Sister Louisa had lived in the U.S. for 40 years, including living in Oregon during the 1960s.
Sister Louisa invited Chuck and Kimberly inside of what was left of her home. They could see that she was left in the dark after sunset each evening, with no running water. Plastic bottles filled with dirty water were stacked in the kitchen to wash dishes and in the bathroom to flush the toilet. Chuck said, “The water filters we gave Sister Louisa and her neighbors would give them sustainable clean water to drink and wash with. The Red Cross also provided solar-powered lights that could be used for many hours every night and would last for a year or more. Sister Louisa’s attitude mirrored that of all the citizens we served that day---extremely grateful and remarkably positive.”
Chuck added, “Our heads told us we should get down from the mountains before dark, but our hearts told us we needed to spend some time with this remarkable nun, so we lingered longer than we should have.”
It was dusk when the team started their journey back to San Juan, and soon it was completely dark, and a rainstorm set in. The winding roads were so narrow, that even in daylight, passing oncoming traffic was a risky challenge. With heavy rain, no street lights, no lane markings, and many bridges washed-out, Chuck and Kimberly had a white-knuckle trip down the mountain. They finally reached the suburbs of San Juan about 7:30 p.m., grateful to find something to eat and to change into dry clothes.
According to Chuck, “The day was full of adventure and challenges. But it was rewarding beyond measure, because we got to serve these wonderful people.”