‘I Will Take Care of You’
Grounded in prayer, Knights across Puerto Rico continue relentless relief and recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria
by Wallice J. de la Vega | photos by Spirit Juice Studios
At the break of dawn Sept. 21, some two dozen men emerged from their wind-whipped homes carrying chainsaws, hatchets and machetes. After sizing up the destruction that Hurricane Maria had swept across the island during the night, they set to work.
For days, these members of San Benito Abad Council 9572 in Patillas, in southeastern Puerto Rico, cleared the way through fallen trees, downed power lines and the pieces of homes and other debris. Then came the mammoth task of supplying food and fresh water to a suffering population whose electrical grid had been wiped out.
“We thank God who gave our council the opportunity to work together and show people the power of God and of faith through actions,” said Grand Knight Noel de León.
De León and his brother Knights in Patillas were not alone. Throughout the island, Knights mobilized to serve their neighbors in the aftermath of the storm.
Armando Vivoni Jr., grand knight of Monseñor José Torres Díaz Council 3836 in Rio Piedras, near San Juan, and K of C General Agent José Lebrón-Sanabria played pivotal roles, helping to orchestrate the distribution of two huge shipments of food and supplies donated by the Supreme Council.
“When the first shipment arrived, Knights all across Puerto Rico rallied together in planning and putting our call to charity into high gear,” Lebrón said. “Councils, assemblies, state council officers, past state deputies, field agents and lots of wives of members joined forces as never before in the distribution effort.”
The Knights have continued to support communities lacking basic goods and services. As of mid-February, thousands of homes were still without electric power, and hardly anyone in the central mountains had running water.
Ongoing local initiatives have been aided by the Supreme Council, which has committed more than $1 million in relief to the island, including material aid for those most in need and funds to help rebuild severely damaged churches and other Catholic institutions.
CHARITY AND SOLIDARITY
Two days after Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the Supreme Council authorized a relief shipment consisting of 132,000 pounds of food and other goods, which reached the island in early October. A $100,000 donation was also sent to the Archdiocese of San Juan to assist with immediate needs.
Vivoni was instrumental in coordinating the shipment from the U.S. mainland and distributing it to Puerto Rico’s interior, as his household hardware business is a certified freight company.
“Thanks to the help of the field agents of the fraternal insurance, things started moving very fast,” Vivoni said.
Lebrón, who is a member of San Francisco de Asis Council 15849 in Las Piedras, organized a convoy of 10 pickup trucks manned by Knights to distribute food and water along with power generators, batteries, portable gas stoves, roof tarps and flashlights.
“That was one of the biggest challenges in my life, because no one had electricity,” recalled Lebrón. “We have 41 councils in Puerto Rico, so I divided up the shipment among the 10 trucks for distribution across the island. Those councils received the food, cooked it and delivered it to those in need, often for many weeks.”
Members of Lebrón’s own council cooked and delivered thousands of free meals to the local community for eight weeks following the hurricane. Among the benefactors was Rafael Cordero-Tolentino, a paraplegic man who lives with his 79-year-old mother in Las Piedras.
“It was a crisis situation for us because our stove was electric and we couldn’t cook,” said Cordero, who is also a member of Padre Agapito Iriberri Council 5014 in Humacao. “God bless my brother Knights for helping us.”
Recently named disaster relief coordinator for Puerto Rico, Lebrón worked with Vivoni and state council officers to organize another convoy at the end of November 2017 to distribute a second large shipment of food and supplies from the Supreme Council.
Every Sunday for more than three months, the seven K of C field agents of Lebrón’s agency also cooked between 150 and 200 hot meals in their own homes and distributed them after Masses in the parishes around the island.
Thomas P. Smith Jr., the chief insurance officer for the Knights of Columbus, remarked, “We have always known that our agents are devoted members of the Order first, and dedicated to the principles of charity, unity and fraternity. These acts of assistance to their brother Knights during a great time of need demonstrate this. The entire field force is proud of what these men in Puerto Rico have done and continue to do.”
Field agent Héctor Lebrón-Sanabria, who is a member of Council 5014 and José’s brother, noted that their service as Knights is rooted in faith.
“I had hope in God that everything was going to be all right in my house with my family, but I still had to accept that it was getting worse,” he said, recalling his prayer as Hurricane Maria first made landfall. “It was so important to pray during the hurricane, as well as after, because we can hear God saying, ‘You are my sons, you are my people. You know I will take care of you.’”
DETERMINED TO REBUILD
Once the extreme flooding had subsided in Patillas’ rural areas, Grand Knight Noel de León and the members of Council 9572 delivered hundreds of pounds of food and dozens of cases of bottled water to a local shelter, where they cooked for families in need. As Christmas approached, the council then distributed Habitat for Humanity home repair kits, some 1,000 toys, and several thousand hot meals.
In the western town of Aguada, where Christopher Columbus first set foot in Puerto Rico, Domingo Serra-López, grand knight of Fray Alonso del Espinar Council 6242, served as a municipal volunteer in the immediate aftermath of Maria. He visited urban and rural areas to assess the extent of material damage and people’s needs. This led members of Council 6242 to prepare hundreds of meals with food donated by the Supreme Council and the National Guard, delivering them to families in the hardest hit zones.
“Maria did a lot of damage, but at the same time it was a blessing because people were helping each other,” said Serra. “It was brotherhood, completely brotherhood.”
In the Diocese of Ponce, on the southern side of the island, the Knights’ cooking, aid distribution and physical labor were based in Nuestra Señora del Carmen Parish, located in the economically depressed Playa sector. The parish church, which lost its roof and was severely damaged by Maria, will be rebuilt with aid from the Order.
“The people of this parish have deep Catholic roots, and the church is extremely historic,” explained State Deputy Miguel Vidal-Lugo.
Luis Mercado-Pacheco, diocesan deputy and a member of Monseñor Ricardo Surina Council 5950 in Ponce, said that a trailer full of water received from the Supreme Council was “a godsend” to the locals.
“We have been received with open arms here in Playa de Ponce, especially in the Puerto Viejo area, which was completely destroyed,” Mercado added.
Padre Antonio Uriarte Council 14281 in Ponce cooked about 200 meals a day for community members for several weeks. Once a month, on what they call Charity Sunday, they distribute free meals at Ponce’s town square.
State Deputy Vidal expressed enthusiasm about the Knights’ ongoing efforts in Puerto Rico and what they have accomplished.
“Things are moving along well,” he said. “There’s much sacrifice, and reaching homes sometimes is not easy, but we are doing it all over the island.”
“Not easy” seems to be a challenge that drives Puerto Rico’s Knights, who continue the work of recovery with unshakeable faith and commitment to stalwart service in the face of disaster.
“I’ve seen concrete houses that were demolished by the hurricane,” said Vivoni. “I’ve seen expressways covered with electrical poles that broke off, unbelievably. What I have seen breaks one’s heart. But the Knights’ first pillar is charity, and so we are determined to rebuild and get Puerto Rico back on its feet.”
WALLICE J. DE LA VEGA is a freelance journalist based in San Germán, Puerto Rico.
A Future Knight Comes to the Rescue
TWELVE-YEAR-OLD Marco, son of General Agent José Lebrón-Sanabria, attends a Benedictine school connected to San Antonio Abad Monastery in Humacao, on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. It was here that Hurricane Maria first made landfall Sept. 20, 2017.
Two days later, Marco had a sudden realization. “I noticed my school bag and thought, ‘Wait a second, my school is in the middle of a forest, and everything outside looks like the videogame Wasteland,’” he recalled. “And so I told my dad, ‘Hey, let’s go check on the monks to see if they are OK.’”
As it turned out, a group of seven elderly monks had been trapped in their monastery, without food or water.
“We were in a critical situation,” explained Father Oscar Rivera, abbot of the monastery for the past 21 years and postulator of the sainthood causes of Blessed Carlos Rodríguez Santiago, who was a member of the Knights of Columbus, and Venerable Rafael Cordero Molina.
“At first, they couldn’t get out because the road was blocked, so a group of us Knights and others cleared a narrow trail around the fallen trees,” said José.
“The Knights took care of things quickly,” added Father Rivera, “and they even got a huge machine to push the debris to the side.”
After clearing access to the Benedictine compound, Knights filled and delivered 55-gallon drums each day with fresh water from a spring located on a mountaintop 10 miles away.
“To fill one drum we had to wait in long lines with small buckets and it took more than 20 trips walking up and down, which was exhausting,” José said. “We did that for 18 days.”
Marco joined his father to fetch the water and also made trips with him to cook and deliver food to those in need.
“My dad has really inspired me because every day he would just go out and help people,” Marco said. “One day, I would like to become a Knight of Columbus too, because I feel that I’ve been put here on earth to help everybody that I can.”
• made landfall in Puerto Rico Sept. 20, 2017, following hard on the heels of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which largely affected Texas and Florida, respectively.
• brought winds reaching nearly 200 mph, making it the strongest cyclone to slam Puerto Rico since the Category 5 hurricane of 1928.
• caused the entire island to lose electricity, leaving a population of 3.4 million in the dark. More than three months later, about one-third of residents were still without power.
• left an official death toll of 64 people, after which the island’s shredded power grid and massive infrastructure damage contributed to a spike in the mortality rate.
• resulted in an estimated $94 billion of damage across the island.
THE SUPREME COUNCIL offered immediate aid and launched a fund drive for additional disaster relief while local Knights distributed food, water and household supplies to communities. The Order committed more $1 million to relief and recovery, allocating funds to restore churches and assisting K of C families and others in need. Maria’s impact is still acutely felt across much of the island, and recovery efforts are ongoing. For more information, or to make a donation, visit kofc.org/disaster.