We couldn't imagine how bad it was going to be,” Pastor Miguel Ortiz said about Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico in September of 2017. “The sound was incredible! And when you thought it couldn't get louder, it grew worse.”
A category 5 storm, Maria slowly tore its way across the U.S. territory, arriving around dawn. “By 9:00 a.m. the strongest part of the storm, 150 mile-per-hour sustained winds, were hitting our area in Juana Diaz, south of the island,” Ortiz said. Despite the immensely destructive windspeed, the hurricane paradoxically moved at a snail’s pace across the entire island, giving the tempest more time to wreak havoc.
The next day Ortiz surveyed the harm caused by Maria. Both his home and his church, Iglesia Biblica de Juana Diaz, weathered the storm with minimal damage, but the surrounding neighborhood resembled a nuclear fallout zone: trees and buildings were leveled, with debris strewn in every direction.
All electric and cellular services were gone, and without light for the darkness, Ortiz remembers the tension and fear that flooded into their isolation. “Emotionally, it was hard for the whole island,” Ortiz said. “The darkness, it was terrible.” It would be weeks before the scope of devastation across the island became clear.
Ortiz moved quickly, uniting with other churches to supply families with food and water. As news of their distress reached the continental U.S., churches and organizations began to send aid. And In Touch Ministries connected with partners in Puerto Rico to deliver Messenger audio devices. “It was a novel and practical way of having the Word of God,” said Ortiz. The solar charger on the Messenger was especially critical, filling the void with spiritual comfort and physical light during what would become months without power.
When electricity finally became available again, Ortiz rented washing machines for the church to help families in the neighborhood with laundry and other essential needs. He’d been supplied with enough Messengers to share with everyone who needed one. “It was an extraordinary time to reach out to the community in their worst time,” Ortiz said.
Even four years later, “the Messengers are still a blessing for all of us in Puerto Rico.” Through a series of hardships the audio devices proved to be a vital lifeline on the island: in early 2020, a massive earthquake struck, and then the COVID-19 pandemic soon followed.
“The first program that you listen to when you turn on the Messenger, it talks about anxiety,” Ortiz said. “The timing [of it is] perfect because a lot of people were anxious. [Hurricane Maria] was a whole new level of disaster. So the timing was great to have something like that and to put it in people's hands.”
And yet recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria persist across Puerto Rico. Even though basic amenities have returned, many families continue to wait for help to fix their homes. But Pastor Ortiz is undeterred, longing to walk with his community as they lean into the power of God and the faith necessary to thrive through years of trauma and hardships.
“We are having multiple opportunities to share the Gospel in many ways,” Ortiz said. “These are hard times, but also amazing times.”
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Photography by Andrés Figueroa