Clean water for Puerto Rico

Rev. Salvador Vassallo, Tom Corson, Johnny Cortez, Mr & Mrs Carlos Ortiz delivering water filters in Toa Baja.  The building lost most of the roof, community members found refuge in the only surviving part seen in the background. 

Tom Corson, executive director of Randolph County-based Servants in Faith and Technology (SIFAT), returned from Puerto Rico where he spent a week taking water filters to communities that still did not have clean water.

Forty-six days have passed since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. The people continue to be in emergency mode after the worst storm to cross the island in 85 years made landfall. People are continuing to struggle just to meet their basic human needs-food, water and shelter. The power grid and infrastructure on the island have been completely destroyed. 60 Minutes estimated 62,000 power poles will be needed from the United States mainland to replace the 6,100 miles of cable that is down.

Clean potable water continues to be one of the biggest needs as water-purifying plants continue to be nonfunctional. Those that have water have no idea of the quality. Many people are collecting water from mountain streams and creeks, and even out of drainage ditches alongside of the roads.

Each community that Tom visited had concerns about the water they were drinking. Everyone seemed to have a story about friends and family that experienced symptoms related to drinking unclean water, such as diarrhea and vomiting, pink eye, scabies, asthma and leptospirosis, caused by a dangerous bacteria. Though cleanup crews are working, the extent of the debris created by crumbling destroyed buildings, trees, cars and furniture is overwhelming. Many streets are still blocked by mud-covered garbage and downed electric poles and wires.

SIFAT had not gone to help earlier, because it had no contact with community organizations or churches that knew the local situation and could organize a relief effort. Even though Tom was born there more than 50 years ago, most of the people his family knew and worked with have now moved or, in many cases, died. However, one friend, Cuqui Lavergne, who is a lawyer in San Juan, wrote Tom asking for help. She and her friend, Angel Rodriguez Targa, knew a number of devastated communities where people were becoming sick from drinking contaminated water. They could help organize community leaders and involve churches in being sure those who needed the help most would get whatever SIFAT could offer.

Immediately, SIFAT staff went into action preparing for the relief effort. This would be a trial trip to see if SIFAT could work directly with churches and local communities in need. Tom took 350 Sawyer filters, each one having the capacity to purify up to one million gallons of water. He trained the community on how to set up and maintain the filters to make sure the locals could operate them properly. The community leaders expressed gratitude in each place, saying their greatest need was for clean water.

These Puerto Rican community leaders were impressive in the way they organized the communities to be sure the neediest-the families with children, disabled or elderly would receive the clean water first. Tom said this was the same Puerto Rican culture he knew as a child-that of neighbors taking care of each other.

On the last day, Tom drove to Loiza, another part of the island where his parents, Ken and Sarah Corson, worked when he was a child. The town was only 15-20 blocks, and the streets still had piles of garbage blocking many exits out of the town. He drove down one street three times before he noticed a little church with the roof half torn off covered with a blue tarp. The front door was blown away so he could see a meeting going on inside. Tuesday afternoon service? Tom wondered what that could be and decided to go in. The leader stopped and welcomed Tom, asking if he could help Tom. Tom told them he was from SIFAT, visiting to see if anyone needed clean water. The congregation stood to their feet and started applauding.

They were leaders from five churches in the area who had met to pray and try to think of some way they could help their communities get clean water. They said water was their biggest need. The 20 minutes Tom was driving around lost was exactly when they were praying for divine intervention for water. Five minutes later, Tom walked into the church. These leaders went home with enough filters to supply 30 million gallons of water for their people.

This trip clearly demonstrated the urgent need for water in Puerto Rico's time of great distress. SIFAT will continuing to work with Puerto Rican leaders to continue to support the relief effort. To help the Puerto Rican people, donations can be made to SIFAT PR Relief Effort, 2944 County Road 113, Lineville, AL 36266.

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