Church leader in Puerto Rico: ‘We don’t want to be forgotten’

Efrain Diaz Figueroa, right, walks by his sister's home destroyed in the passing of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. Maria sent tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing to the U.S. mainland to escape the immediate aftermath of the storm. The 70-year-old is waiting for a sister to come take him to stay with family in Boston. “I’m going to the U.S. I’ll live better there,” he said. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa) Credit: Ramon Espinosa, AP, AP

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico —

Wilfred Rosa wages daily battles with food and water shortages, power outages, gas lines and spotty cell phone service.

Such challenges have come to define life in the days and weeks since Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico. But perhaps his greatest fear is “that people will forget about us. We don’t want to be forgotten. We will have needs here for months to come.”

The San Juan resident’s worries stretch beyond caring for his family and reinvigorating his robotics business. As president of the San Juan Puerto Rico Stake, he’s responsible for the temporal and spiritual health of thousands of Latter-day Saints living in 10 wards and branches in and around the capital city.

“The hurricane was so tough,” he told the Church News. “We still have people struggling just to find food and water. We wait in long lines to get supplies. And, for most people, there’s still no [running] water or power.”

President Rosa counts himself among the lucky on this U.S. island territory. He had running water in his home for a couple of days (but no longer) and his cell phone usually works. But when he drives through San Juan and the outlying communities in his stake, he’s reminded that Puerto Rico’s recovery remains a slow, uncertain process.

It’s been almost a month since Hurricane Maria dramatically changed this island. Only 15 percent of the people have electricity and 40 percent still don’t have reliable access to drinking water, according to USA Today.

“There is still so much need,” said President Rosa.

The local Latter-day Saint leader had hoped to travel to Salt Lake City to attend the recent general conference. Instead, he spent conference weekend looking after folks in need in his stake.

About 15 percent of the San Juan stake members lost their homes. “They were left with nothing but a floor,” he said.

Others remain displaced as they seek building materials to patch-up damaged homes.

Many Latter-day Saint families have left for the U.S. mainland. “Some say they will return — but others tell me they’re never coming back.”

Donations of essential provisions such as rice, water and batteries have helped many in the San Juan stake endure the aftermath of the historic storm. “And we do what we can to deliver some hope,” he added.

President Rosa is a Puerto Rico native — a proud Boricua. And he’s not easily spooked by hurricanes. But Maria was an entirely different animal.

“The hurricane was horrible,” he said. “It took out all forms of communication. I couldn’t even get AM radio signals. It took out all the antennas.”

San Juan’s metropolitan area gets a bit better each week. But many living in the rural regions have seen little improvement.

Meanwhile, San Juan stake members still gather on Sundays in darkened meetinghouses for sacrament meeting. Only the stake center in the Trujillo Alto neighborhood has a generator. But it’s rarely used.

“It runs on diesel, which is like gold right now,” he said.

The support of general Church leaders has helped lift President Rosa and other local members. Elder Walter F. Gonzalez, a General Authority Seventy and the Caribbean Area president, recently traveled to Puerto Rico with his wife, Sister Zulma Gonzalez, and Elder Julio C. Acosta, an Area Seventy.

“Seeing the island from the air for the first time was a very emotional experience,” Elder Gonzalez told Church Newsroom. “It appeared as if the very life of the island had been violently swept away.”

Elder Gonzalez met with government officials to establish procedures to ship relief supplies to Puerto Rico. They also counseled with bishops and Relief Society presidents to share direction on providing relief in its many forms to members.

The Church’s welfare department dispatched 40 containers of ocean shipments to several Caribbean islands hammered by the recent hurricanes — including Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. Martin. The shipments contained food, water, building materials, hygiene kits and cleaning supplies, according to Newsroom.

A Church-chartered plane filled with 80,000 pounds of food and water was also dispatched to Puerto Rico.

In his frequent meetings and visits with hurricane-weary members, President Rosa speaks of God’s love and its sustaining power. “This is an opportunity for us to have faith in the Lord and to trust Him.”

He also repeats counsel shared by President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency during his Sept. 15 visit to Puerto Rico in between hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“President Eyring promised us that if we read the Book of Mormon we will be fine,” he said. “He taught us to trust the Lord, do your best and serve others.”

Some economists predict Puerto Rico’s economy will take more than a decade to recover. In the meantime, President Rosa worries updates from the embattled island will soon be buried deep in each passing day’s news cycle.

“There are still people on parts of the island that need help,” he said. “Puerto Rico needs help.”

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