When six members from the Janesville First Baptist Church descended into San Jaun, Puerto Rico, last week, they noticed the blue roofs.
“We found out later it was tarps,” Julia Amstutz said.
Hurricane Maria pulverized Puerto Rico when it hit in September, officially leaving at least 64 dead and millions without power or water. Five months later, many tarps remain.
The Janesville church members arrived in Puerto Rico on Feb. 6. Members of a mission trip team started planning a project last year, and they were originally going to the Dominican Republic. A twist of fate landed them in Puerto Rico to fix a roof instead.
At a church in Cidra, about 30 miles south of San Juan, part of a carport roof was ripped from the church by Maria’s 150 mph winds, volunteer Dan Drozdowicz said. The torn piece cartwheeled across the building’s metal roof, punching about 26 holes in the sanctuary’s ceiling.
Drozdowicz said the piece had to weigh at least 80,000 pounds.
One of the holes in the ceiling was 16 feet wide by 13 feet long, Drozdowicz said. Another member of the trip, Jean Schaefer, said the sanctuary was soaked in water and covered in black mold.
They had to wear hazmat suits while cleaning inside the sanctuary, Schaefer said.
The storm devastated many parts of the Cidra church, but the Janesville group’s sole objective was to patch the holes in the roof so the congregation could start using the sanctuary again, member Larry Turner said.
The Janesville team partnered with other volunteers through the American Baptist Men disaster relief team. Both groups stayed in a large house together and worked eight-hour days cleaning debris and patching holes.
The relief team provided supplies and took care of the housing, lunch and dinner.
“We went to a local Ace Hardware store, and it was a huge store, much bigger than ours,” trip member Ron Westby said.
“And they had everything. And it was packed.”
Schaefer and Julia and David Amstutz worked on the ground, cleaning up debris from broken floor tiles and the crumbling ceiling.
Turner and Westby helped fix damage to the front of the building, Turner said. Drozdowicz spent most of his time on the roof, cutting the old metal out and installing new metal, he said.
“They were tough, long days,” Drozdowicz said.
Before the Janesville team arrived, nothing had been done to the church since the hurricane. The congregation has been using a room to the side of the church for services, David said. And even after a week’s work, the church remains damaged. The sanctuary is still inoperable, and it will be for a while, Westby said.
But by the end of their visit Feb. 13, all the holes over the sanctuary had been patched.
“It didn’t seem like we were doing all that much, but it meant an awful lot to the people there,” Drozdowicz said. “That really warmed my heart.”
Westby said it’s hard to feel like the team made a dent in helping Puerto Rico, but that’s not the case, he said.
“It doesn’t seem like you do a lot, but you take (your work) times how many hundreds or thousands of other groups or people helping. It makes a big difference,” he said.
On one of the final days of the trip, the Janesville volunteers attended service at the church Sunday morning. Some members of the Cidra congregation stood in the sanctuary for the first time in five months.
“You could sense their appreciation, even for as little as we had done,” Drozdowicz said. “That gave me an immense sense of gratitude.”
Turner said the trip wasn’t about repairing the church but about instilling hope and showing the locals that “there is a future,” he said.
“You could see the hope within the people,” Turner said. “I think that hope is not only within (the church) but within their lives. We feel that we have accomplished that creating of hope.”
Jerry Amstutz, pastor at the Janesville First Baptist Church, wasn’t able to go on the trip, but he echoed the optimism from the trip members.
“The pastor (in Cidra) is in a wheelchair yet has a sweet spirit,” Amstutz said. “The custodian of the church has cancer, and these people have been spending so many hours trying to get their own lives and families in shape. It’s really been difficult for that church. But I think the hope that our team and the others have given is wonderful.”