A 26-volunteer team from a local mission group spent the past week rebuilding two homes in Puerto Rico in the devastating wake of Hurricane Maria.
From July 7 to 14, the volunteers from Vancouver and CenterPoint Church in Long Island, N.Y., worked in Ponce, on the southern coast of the island, restoring the top story of one family’s home and gutting a second residence damaged by water and termites.
It’s a small step on the long road to recovery after the September 2017 hurricane ravaged the U.S. territory, causing an estimated $90 billion in damage and leaving millions without electricity, water or cellphone service.
The trip was organized by Forward Edge International, a Vancouver-based Christian nonprofit that focuses on rendering “Phase II” aid to deserving communities, said Wendell Robinson, the group’s senior program officer.
“Whenever there’s a natural disaster of some sort — earthquake, hurricane, these types of things — we are positioned to respond after Phase I responders have demobilized,” Robinson said.
Phase I responders make up the immediate, large-scale emergency aid, often rendered by military groups or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That generally takes place under the glare of a news spotlight, with the world’s eyes turned to the location of the disaster.
But when that spotlight turns elsewhere, and when a disaster like Hurricane Maria drops off the collective public consciousness, the need for aid remains. That’s when Phase II assistance becomes crucial.
“As long as the media is paying attention, so does the rest of the world,” Robinson said. “Funding typically pours in in the time which the media is focusing on it, then when the media goes away, the funding dries up.”
Forward Edge focuses on building longer-term partnerships within communities, so that the organization can continue to render aid for years beyond a news cycle. Currently, their other priority locations include bases in Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua and Kenya.
“Our focus is typically to work at a grass-roots level through the local church and trying to target those that are the most vulnerable,” Robinson said.
When the team touched down in Puerto Rico, they faced a few challenges out of the gate, said Jen Goheen, who led the group of volunteers along with her husband, Ken.
“We struggled to find the needed materials due to the vast need for many of these items. Sometimes we had to be creative to make what we had work,” she said. “We had a delay in start of work due to Tropical (Storm) Beryl dumping rain the first day onsite. There were also language barriers.”
Despite these challenges, the group was able to break ground on two priority projects. The first was rebuilding the second story of a home that had been shoddily repaired immediately after Maria.
“The owner appeared to have been taken advantage of by the local contractor she had hired as the rebuild was not completed as promised and many shortcuts had been taken so that she did not have a home that would survive another hurricane,” Goheen said. “The team completed this project by securing the roof to the top plate of the exterior walls using hurricane ties, rebuilt the front porch and stairway, finished installing exterior paneling, and painted the exterior.”
The second major project included gutting a home that had been heavily damaged by water and termites, with the goal of completing the project during a later trip with another team.
“All kitchen cabinets were removed, all wood panel walls and ceilings were taken down to the studs and the home was cleaned up so that it is inhabitable until the renovation can be completed,” Goheen said.
The work fit in with Forward Edge’s mission of providing aid to populations most susceptible to disaster conditions, Robinson said — children, their families, and the communities in which they live.
“Our goal is to help the vulnerable who are still in need of help. These two homeowners are both widows and do not have the resources to do these type of projects on their own. One widow has lived her entire life and raised her family in this home,” Goheen said.