Catholic Charities Officials Witness Toll of Quakes in Puerto Rico


During a visit to Puerto Rico, administrators from archdiocesan Catholic Charities witnessed sorrow stemming from the devastation caused by the recent earthquakes in communities still recovering from the 2017 hurricanes.

The administrators witnessed residents displaying emotions ranging from tearful outbursts to numbness. Most of the destruction occurred in communities of southern Puerto Rico.

During their two-day visit Jan. 31-Feb.1, the New Yorkers met with staff and volunteers of Cáritas de Puerto Rico, a member agency of Catholic Charities USA.

“Some were very somber, very quiet; they are living in constant fear of these earthquakes and aftershocks,” Talia Lockspeiser, chief operating officer of archdiocesan Catholic Charities, told Catholic New York in a Feb. 5 interview at the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan.

“There were people who, once they began telling their personal story, they would get very emotional. The uncertainty, more than anything, is creating this sense of anxiety and desperation—not knowing when there will be another earthquake, and the impact that it will have.”

Cáritas aid workers, she noted, “have been very good at putting their own personal fears and feelings aside and focusing on helping those who have suffered more than they have…These are communities of faith; they have a very strong personal belief that the work they are doing is providing healing to themselves by giving to others.”

Also making the trip were Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of New York, and Beatriz Diaz Taveras, executive director of Catholic Charities Community Services. They visited Ponce and Coamo the first day, and Guayanilla and Guanica the second day.

“The earthquakes and the aftershocks have been concentrated in the area around Ponce; it impacted a number of communities in that area,” said Msgr. Sullivan in the same interview. “One of the communities, Coamo, is where a Head Start center of the New York Foundling is located. The impact was such that the Head Start center was closed since the time of the (first) earthquake and only reopened two days after we were there.”

The first of multiple earthquakes hit Puerto Rico Dec. 28 – the largest one occurred Jan. 7. (Hurricanes Irma and Maria occurred in September 2017.)

Msgr. Sullivan, Ms. Lockspeiser and Ms. Diaz Taveras met with Head Start children and their families. School was closed for weeks while engineers sought to make sure the building was structurally safe before allowing the program to resume. Coamo had two Head Start centers; Hurricane Maria destroyed one.

“One of the things that was very noteworthy was the somberness of the parents who were there, because of the uncertainty of not knowing when another earthquake might come and exactly how they needed to respond to that,” Msgr. Sullivan said.

“One of the parents actually had a building fall on his car. He lost almost everything. We provided gift cards to the families that were there so that they could buy necessities. We gave them gift cards because we feel they know best what they need. New York Foundling provided emergency backpacks to the children, because now everybody is being urged to have an emergency kit that they can take with them should another earthquake come.”

The next day, the New Yorkers visited Guayanilla, where the main church in the plaza, Immaculate Conception, was destroyed, with just the façade remaining.

From there they went to Guanica, one of the poorest communities in Puerto Rico, Msgr. Sullivan said. They visited St. Anthony parish, which appeared to be relatively unscathed. Closely reviewing images taken by a drone, workers discovered connections between the roof and the walls were shattered. Because of the cracking, the asbestos that had been encapsulated there was sifting through the entire church.

Catholic Charities of New York has provided $80,000 in aid in response to the earthquakes in Puerto Rico — $70,000 to assist Cáritas de Puerto Rico with its aid work, and $10,000 for New York Foundling’s efforts.

“One of the things that is part of the reality is that both Cáritas in Puerto Rico and the New York Foundling were continuing to work with families and children who were still recovering from (Hurricane) Maria,” Msgr. Sullivan said. “So now these earthquakes have just exacerbated the recovery from Maria; there are increasing levels of poverty—the economy was further depressed by Maria.”

He noted that this was caused in part by employers leaving the island — and there were the social and governmental tasks of seeking to help residents suffering mental health setbacks and trauma related to the hurricanes, and now the earthquakes.