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Window on Puerto Rico recovery

Grand Rapids 1st work team in Puerto Rico doing windo repair

An Early Response Team from Grand Rapids 1st UMC is home after 10 days at work in Puerto Rico.

ERT Leader, Grand Rapids 1st UMC

MARCH 24, 2019 |GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan – To date 12 UMCOR/UMVIM teams, typically involving 7-10 volunteers, have gone to work in Puerto Rico since the hurricane struck the island in September 2017. An Early Response Team from Grand Rapids First was among them.

We arrived back in Grand Rapids on Sunday, March 11, 2018, home safe and excited to share about our experiences. While away we used only a small number of bandages and a few bottles of ibuprofen! In summary, we all had a very rewarding trip both for what we accomplished and the spiritual gifts and love we received from the people in Puerto Rico.

The trip was rich with relationships. We established connections to the host Nidtza, translator Jose, the ladies who cooked, our job coordinator Anthony (retired corp of engineers), the experienced builders who we were helping (Poppo, Jose, and Edwin) and each of the families. While we have physically departed Puerto Rico, our support continues.

Our work location was east of Patillas on the southeast coast. We lodged in nearby Guardarraya. Each day was full: wake up, start generator, enjoy the sunrise, eat breakfast, load the tools in the van, go to work site, work till about 5pm, unload the van, shower for dinner, eat, review plan for next days work, organize the tools specific to the plans for the next days work, hold team meeting, play a few games, then go to bed.

Airfield in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
The first thing the team saw as the plane landed in San Juan on March 1 was this building on the airfield, trashed by Maria and now being used as a debris storage spot.

We were on the ocean, we enjoyed the sound of waves and wind. The retreat center was on a main road and we got used to the traffic noise with heavy trucks going thru at all times of the night. Heat and humidity was tolerable.

More about the work made possible by many hands and high spirits …

Site #1 Task description
Maria blew away the kitchen somewhere up the mountain. The prior team had erected 2×4 stud walls and put up a blue tarp for roof, our team put on steel roof, added siding, installed windows, painted siding, and did a lot of debris cleanup. Efforts done for future hurricane-resistance:
– the gaps were filled and foam was used to get a tighter wind seal under the corrugated steel. The down braces resist hurricane force winds.

Homeowners were very happy (above photo white-tees). There was more to be done that will be worked on by subsequent teams, electrical, plumbing, and putting up the inside paneling, and getting the sink back on line.

Site #2 Task description
Maria blew away the prior roof. We prepared the home for 4″ thick concrete roof. Sites #1 & #2 were 300 yards apart. We walked between sites for tools needs.We supported Jose, a highly experienced builder, in getting horizontal rebar beams built and installed (estimated 2000 tie points); removing four layers of tile floor, building some partial block walls, and debris cleanup. The concrete pour for this roof is expected this coming week.

ERT means partnership. Jose was building this for his sister Petra and Petra’s family. Jose was a builder his whole life right in this neighborhood. He built the homes next door. He was a very patient mentor to our folks who had never been part of a concrete roof job. Jose told us in 1955 when he was 11 years old, he and 12 family members rode out Hurricane Santa Clara in a small concrete shed about a 100′ from this home. I think it convinced him that concrete was the way to survive a Hurricane.

I was fortunate to spend some time at this place working alongside Jose. I built out a concrete form on the inside of the house and I was not pleased with my work. I looked to Jose for suggestions. He started shaking his finger slowly. I thought I was going to be criticized for my poor work. He searched for the words in English then said, “You, you, you, you are the hands of God.” I felt better. We left with this site near ready for the concrete pour. 

VIM team does roof repair in Puerto Rico
At one point most of the team up on the roof tying off the re-bar. The roof surface had 1,080 tie points. The horizontal beams at the center and edge walls had probably a similar number of tie points. “Many hands made this work go better.” Myron says.

Site #3 task description
Installed new roofing on 14 x 14 room. In addition, we put a roof over a generator shed with salvaged metal roofing and helped with debris cleanup.
Vivian, the homeowner, was very friendly and joined in the debris cleanup. 

We realized after removal of the blue FEMA tarp on the first home that there would be a very large amount of used blue FEMA tarps in the coming months. We initiated a list of ideas for reuse of used FEMA tarps to avoid all this becoming debris in the waste stream. We came up with about 30 ideas, the goal was 101. At Site #3 we tested the first reuse idea for blue FEMA tarps; I took a piece of tarp and safety pinned it to my hat to shade the back of my neck. I have sent the full list to leaders in Puerto Rico and offered to make prototypes of several of these things that require some design. Local women could make these repurposed tarp items and sell them once they have electricity for their sewing machines.

Site #4 task description
Support homeowner and family in concrete home rebuild. We dug holes,  helped with re-bar reinforcement, fed a gas powered small batch mixer and poured concrete for each hole. It was great task for a large group. The homeowner thought we helped their rebuild schedule by 2-3 weeks. We worked very hard on this for 2 1/2 days high in the mountain. At the end of Friday we successfully finished this and there was many tears of joy from the family.
While we had access to two powered hammers, much time was spent with a large bar and an eight-pound sledge hammer. In one hole, the concrete was 10” or more thick and the powered hammer was having little effect, so we established a teamwork approach for the sledge hammer with each of us rotating in after 10 or so swings. We had a crew of folks swarming on building re-bar beams. This was labor intensive and we typically had 4-6 folks on each one. The terrain was not flat, so holding the ladder was often needed. There was difficulty getting the wheelbarrows to the holes and then dumping the load of concrete without losing it. Lots of teamwork needed during this phase. When the last hole was poured, we all cheered. 

There were many rich stories shared between the family and our team. Angel (16) and Natalie (14) recalled what they were doing during the hurricane. Angel was sneaking peeks out the louvered windows, while others were trying to take their minds off the storm. The winds were so high that the whole concrete house was shaking. During the time they were in the eye-wall, they walked out and looked around. Things were holding up okay. The backside of the storm was rain wrapped and had embedded tornadoes. It was the backside of the storm that took their home away.

Myron working on roof in Puerto Rico.
When you’re on a ladder as an Early Responder, you see more than the roof, the sky, and the ground. You see God at work among God’s people.

How did I see God?

  • I saw God helping our team get through the four  phases of teamwork: forming, storming, norming, and performing from the moment we arrived at the camp when we set out to get ready to hit the ground running on Saturday morning.
  • I saw God in my connection with Jose, our translator, who is a very talented photographer, a prankster, and gentle helpful soul. I have started working to arrange an art show for him in our church.
  • I saw God connect Julie with young Angel who expressed a desire to go to West Point. I was two feet from Angel, when his father came home from work and he immediately (after a big hug and kiss) spoke to his father about Julie’s conversation and got a thumbs up to pursue this. Julie and her husband Laurin, a West Point graduate, have already reached out to the admissions department on Angel’s behalf.
  • We all felt God in the amount of love shared. At the church we were greeted warmly and I believe that every person on our team was hugged by the members of the congregation. At each home the families were very caring, lots of hugs and many tears of joy over the accomplishments and sadness when we were departing.
  • I saw God, when my team allowed me to use tools and bust up concrete and when I asked for and received a new chainsaw to start cleaning up the beach. Much of my  time as team leader was spent in coordination of activities and planning for the next job.

We established strong relationships with the people in Puerto Rico. Many hands and high spirits made big things possible. I expect that this adventure is not over.

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