With Hurricanes Irma and Maria nearly a full year in Puerto Rico’s proverbial rear-view window, Latter-day Saints on the U.S. territory island anxiously await President Russell M. Nelson’s devotional visit Sunday, Sept. 2, in the capital city of San Juan.
Just this week, Puerto Rico’s governor accepted research-documented death totals from the horrific September 2017 storms, upping the official death total from just 64 initially to 2,975 storm-related fatalities on the island.
With a population of 3.4 million and a LDS membership count of more than 23,000 on an island about the size of the state of Connecticut, every person in Puerto Rico shares hurricane stories from last fall and experiences about recovery in the 11 months since.
On Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma and its 185-mph winds passed north of Puerto Rico en route to pummel Florida. Despite the near-miss, the Category 5 storm left 1 million on the island without power and damages estimated at $1 billion. Fourteen days later came the direct-hit knockout and the island’s worst hurricane in eight decades. The Category 4 Maria with 155-mph winds cut a destructive, diagonal path like a 50-mile-wide tornado.
With President Nelson's pending presence in Puerto Rico this weekend, the Church News looks back on hurricane-relief coverage on the island and the stories of Church leaders, members and missionaries weathering the storm and the aftereffects.
A precursor of preparation
Two days before Hurricane Irma — the first of September 2017’s two major hurricanes — began pummeling the Caribbean islands, officials posted a document on the Caribbean Area’s website detailing local emergency preparedness plans and responses.
Rather than a “quick fix” to weather the first category hurricane, it shed light on the advance preparations encouraged by the Church for its units, members and missionaries, with lists ranging from emergency supplies to steps to take before, during and after an emergency.
The storm before the storm
Hurricane Irma, which in early September all but skirted Puerto Rico after a devastating beginning through much of the Caribbean and continuing northward to batter Florida, resulted in 84 storm-related deaths in the area.
Although an estimated 1 million residents were without power post-Irma and tens of thousands were without water, Puerto Rico became an island of refuge for other more adversely affected islands, with patients needing medical attention airlifted to San Juan and more than a thousand tourists being relocated to the island.
President Eyring's visit
President Henry B. Eyring, then the first counselor in the First Presidency, traveled to Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and Florida after Hurricane Irma. The storm left $11 billion in damages in its wake, with $1 billion alone in Puerto Rico.
In a devotional in San Juan on Sept. 15, 2017, President Eyring — who was accompanied by Bishop Dean M. Davies of the Presiding Bishopric and General Authority Seventy Elder Jörg Klebingat — spoke words of encouragement in “a message saying that the Lord cares about them.”
With Hurricane Maria forming in the Caribbean Sea and soon to bear down with brutal force on Puerto Rico, the Saints in San Juan would learn that President Eyring’s message was meant as much for sustaining them after Maria as it was for after Irma.
The Church’s first-month post-hurricanes response included 40 containers via ocean shipments to the islands of food, water, building materials, hygiene kits and cleaning supplies. A Church-chartered plan also delivered an additional 80,000 pounds of food and water to Puerto Rico, where only 15 percent of the residents had electricity and some 40 percent were without reliable access to drinking water.
Elder Walter F. Gonzalez, a General Authority Seventy and Caribbean Area president, visited with Church and welfare leaders on the U.S. territory island. In the San Juan Puerto Rico Stake alone, 15 percent of members had lost their homes.
Retelling their experiences
In the months after Irma and Maria, stories continued to be shared about the Latter-day Saints’ self-sustaining efforts and service toward fellow members, neighborhoods and communities.
Those experiences are like threads, binding together and strengthening Puerto Ricans — to paraphrase a hymn — to touch each other for good.
By spring 2018, the Church had provided more than $4 million of in-kind and cash donations in the Caribbean Area after the two hurricanes, much of it to Puerto Rico due to its greater population. Some 100,000 households on the island had been assisted, which was more than four times the local Church membership.
In February, Bishop Davies led a contingent of Church and welfare leaders as they checked in with some of the Church’s relief partners and also presented an additional $100,000 donation to a local food bank.
Also stirring were the stories of the young missionaries huddled together for eight days in Maria's wake. Puerto Rico San Juan Mission President David H. Smart and his wife, Sister Brenda Smart, and their 155 missionaries were left with limited livable space as well as little food, water, gas for generators, scant communication and no power anywhere on the island.
After evacuation for more than two months, missionaries started trickling back little by little back to the island.