PROSPECT HEIGHTS — The earthquakes that hit Puerto Rico on Jan. 6 and 7 and last weekend have shaken those in the Diocese of Brooklyn with roots on the island, as well as those who once lived in Brooklyn or Queens.
Joanna Rivera for example, thought that moving from Brooklyn back to Puerto Rico would allow her to enjoy her retirement, but instead it put her at the epicenter of the earthquakes, which destroyed her home.
Now Rivera, 68, doubts that she will ever be able to live on the island again. She plans to move back to Brooklyn permanently.
“There’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear, a lot of hysteria,” Evelis Rivera, a parishioner of St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral, Prospect Heights, and Joanna’s niece, said about the earthquakes.
Her other aunt, Maria Rivera, also lives in Puerto Rico. Communicating with her aunts during the past week has been a challenge.
“You find it hard to sleep,” Evelis said. “How are they doing? Are they sleeping? Are they okay?”
Maria Rivera lives on an embankment, and while her home is still standing, some of her neighbors, much like Joanna, were less fortunate. “They’re all sleeping in tents outside,” Evelis said. “They’re afraid to be inside of the home. They cook and go right back outside.”
As of Jan. 10, Maria was still without power, sleeping either outside or in a small shack in the back of her house.
Evelis serves as the president of Brooklyn Gives Back, an organization that helps combat homelessness and hunger and provides aid in time of crisis. When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, she and other New Yorkers banded together to send aid.
Now airplane tickets to Puerto Rico are expensive, and Evelis has to figure out how to get there with the supplies she’s collecting for earthquake victims.
“This brought them back to this feeling of not being able to do anything for their own safety,” Evelis said. “She (her aunt Maria) tells me, ‘I never thought that I would have to feel this way.’”
Father Enrique Camacho, the director of Catholic Charities Puerto Rico, said the organization had been working on relief efforts on the island since Hurricane Maria made landfall. On Jan. 6, the group refocused its efforts to collect $150,000 in food, water and supplies for those affected by the continuing tremors.
When he spoke to The Tablet by phone from Guanica on Jan. 10, Father Camacho said he had already felt the ground shake four times that day. While anticipation of a hurricane leaves room for preparations, the unpredictability of earthquakes makes rebuilding and having any peace of mind extremely difficult.
After a hurricane passes, “you’re home,then you’re safe,” he said. “The problem with this is that people don’t feel safe.” In the days since, people have been sleeping in parks, parking lots and inside cars. Even the pastor of Immaculate Conception is living in Guayanilla and sleeping in his own car, Father Camacho said.
“People have lost their homes,” he said. “It’s very complicated.”
In the Brooklyn Diocese, Deacon Jaime Varela of Our Lady of the Presentation – Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville has Puerto Rico on his mind. He moved to the U.S. mainland from the western town of Aguada in 1969, and usually visits the island this time of year to spend time with family.
When he couldn’t make the trip this time, his wife did. She was near Ponce, Puerto Rico, at the time of the earthquakes, and while she, their family and property are safe, “people from other parts of the island are bringing food and music to kids just to get their minds off,” he said.
“They all come together in situations like this,” Deacon Varela added. “They do not wait … They all help each other and they come together.”