SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — For years, Pastor Humberto “Bert” Pizarro, head of an Assemblies of God mission in San Juan, supplied mostly spiritual guidance and prayer to his congregants.
After Hurricane Maria tore through his adopted island, his focus shifted to a more practical calling: Delivering food, water, medicine and teams of volunteers to locals after witnessing the scope of the devastation and the sluggishness of the federal response.
Today, Pizarro, a New York native, runs an informal disaster response network that stretches across the island, supplying volunteer doctors, medicine, water, roofers, food and other resources and, in some instances, outpacing federal recovery efforts.
“I never thought I could impact an entire island,” Pizarro, 42, said. “We’ve done so much. And it’s only the beginning.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is helping to lead recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, has paid out more than $125 million in individual disaster aid and distributed more than 28 million meals and 35 million liters of water. The Sept. 20 Category 4 hurricane ripped through the center of the island, killing at least 55 people and displacing thousands.
But Maria's widespread destruction and its distance from the U.S. mainland pose unique challenges as efforts shift from emergency response to long-term recovery, said Mike Byrne, the FEMA official coordinating the federal response in Puerto Rico.
“When you go from a complete stop to moving forward on major reconstruction on an island 1,000 miles from the mainland, it’s going to take time,” he said.
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Pizarro and other parochial and non-profit groups such as his have been filling key gaps left behind by federal responders.
Built more like a boxer than a minister, Pizarro — known as “Pastor Bert” to friends and congregants — grew up in Brooklyn and Queens. He came to Puerto Rico 12 years ago with his wife, Zoharis, as an Assemblies of God missionary. Pizarro later started his own church in San Juan. He worked with victims of Haiti’s earthquake, helping children and digging wells for locals there.
When Maria hit Puerto Rico, he quickly realized his mission would change to disaster relief, he said.
“Trees down, power lines down, roofs gone, massive amount of debris all over the place,” Pizarro said. “It was the same everywhere: Devastation.”
In those first few days after the storm, Pizarro said he saw teams of FEMA and U.S. military clearing roads and debris. But no one seemed to be bringing in supplies.
Through church contacts in the U.S., Pizarro raised money and bought $200,000 worth of groceries from island wholesalers and trucked them directly into neighborhoods. Days into the disaster, bags full of rice, beans, oil, salt, water, tomato sauce and other supplies began arriving in some of the hardest-hit areas of Puerto Rico.
“I called all of our pastors and said, ‘I’m sending you trucks with 200 bags full of goods and water. Release them to your people,’” he said.
When he heard the main hospital in Bayamón was running low on surgical supplies, he tapped more sources and bused in eight duffle bags full of surgical gauge, bandages, antibiotics and other supplies, which were running low after the storm.
“When they came here with all the supplies, they made me cry,” said Tamara Behar, the hospital’s executive director. “All the kindness. You saw they wanted to help you. It was very emotional.”
Word of Pizarro's efforts spread.
In mid-October, he received a phone call from a member of a volunteer medical team with the Syrian American Medical Society. The group was in Puerto Rico to volunteer their services and FEMA set them up in a 250-bed clinic in Ponce, in the southern part of the island. In more than a week, they had seen only 11 patients. Frustrated, one of the members called Pizarro.
Pizarro picked up the group of volunteer doctors and nurses and shuttled them to clinics in San Juan, Toa Baja and Utuado. In four days, the team worked with nearly 200 patients.
“When they came to me, it was a leap of faith,” he said. “But I told them, ‘You get here and I’ll put you to work.’”
After Pizarro posted a Facebook video asking for more help, volunteer teams reached out — from Chicago, New York, Texas. He houses the incoming teams at the district headquarters of the Assemblies of God or at the San Juan YMCA. One of his greatest needs: more cargo vans to shuttle teams around the island.
In a darkened room at his church's regional headquarters, color-coded poster boards paper an entire wall showing flight information, missions and contact numbers for incoming teams. His teams are booked through mid-December. So far, Pizarro has brought help to 72 of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities.
On a recent trip to Arecibo, on the western part of the island, Pizarro and a group of volunteers from Chicago and New York donned boots and gloves and went to work shoveling weeks-old river muck out of the Templo Pentecostal La Hermosa, an Assemblies of God church hit with 12 feet of floodwater during Maria.
By lunchtime, the team had cleared out most of the muck and removed the flood-ruined pews and furniture. The goal: Make the church ready for Sunday service.
Miguel Segarra, the church’s pastor, said he applied for FEMA aid shortly after the storm but hadn’t heard back from the federal agency. He had all but given up on saving the church.
“Extraordinary,” he said, as volunteers ferried out wheelbarrows full of dirt and debris. “At the end of the day, God takes care of you, no one else.”
Pizarro moved his wife and two young kids, ages 8 and 4, to New York a few weeks ago. He'll fly there next week to spend Thanksgiving with his family, then return to the business of resurrecting Puerto Rico.
"As long as teams keep coming, I’ll be here," he said.
To donate to Pizarro: Visit www.connectedlifepr.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.