The Holy See issued diplomatic cables on Wednesday to the presidents of the Catholic bishops’ conferences in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, in response to the humanitarian crises facing the Caribbean islands in the wake of Hurricane Fiona.
The twin messages, describing Pope Francis’ “fervent prayer” and invoking the intercession of the islands’ respective Marian patronages, were sent on his behalf by the Vatican’s secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
“He also asks the entire Christian community and people of good will to increase their solidarity to help those affected by this calamity,” the letters read, addressed to Archbishop Freddy Bretón Martínez of Santiago de los Caballeros and Bishop Rubén González Medina, CMF of Ponce.
Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, OFM of San Juan, the highest-ranking Boricua Catholic prelate, shared the Vatican telegram on social media and thanked the Holy Father for his words.
“We appreciate from the heart the expressions and prayers of Pope Francis during these days of suffering in which we live in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,” he said on Wednesday afternoon.
The messages come as the effects of the disaster make headlines worldwide after the Category 4 storm made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sunday, causing island-wide power outages and property damage. The same day, President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency as life-threatening floods surged and clean water access became scarce for many.
10 deaths have been reported as of Thursday morning, four of which occurred in Puerto Rico, and the storm has been called the worst to hit the island since Hurricane Maria brought widespread damage and flooding in 2017.
Relief efforts from the mainland have been active in the days since the storm hit, including from the state government of New York, which contains the largest stateside population of Puerto Ricans as well as of Dominicans. Governor Kathy Hochul mobilized state troopers to assist in Puerto Rico on Monday, and has been in contact with the government heads of both islands.
“New York knows full well the devastating impact that Mother Nature can bring, and that is why we stand ready to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from this terrible storm,” she said in a statement.
Her fellow Catholic, the Afro-Dominican US Representative Adriano Espaillat, announced on Tuesday his strategic planning with island officials, “to engage critical stakeholders to discuss pressing on-the-ground needs and encourage federal partners to share resources.”
“We have witnessed catastrophic devastation across Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and it will require a multi-level government approach to ensure vital resources to the region and in a timely manner,” he said in a joint statement with local Dominican-American politicians.
Speaking on the House Floor Wednesday morning, Espaillat commended Biden for his efforts thus far and encouraged the president to approve a major disaster declaration, as requested by Puerto Rico governor Pedro Pierluisi.
“We cannot turn our backs on our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico,” Espaillat said.
In response to the ongoing crisis, Espaillat has also re-introduced legislation in Congress that would allow for more streamlined housing recovery efforts among those affected by the hurricane.
“In the wake of past major disasters, it became apparent that many survivors were having their housing assistance applications denied by FEMA because of the overwhelming documentation the agency requires to prove ownership of damaged property,” he said on Monday.
“In some cases, they never receive housing assistance at all.”
The bill, titled the Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act, is co-sponsored by Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s designated representative to the US Congress. It passed committee in July, but has yet to be brought up for an official vote on the House floor.
Espaillat, who referred to the FEMA requirements as “unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles,” says the legislation can’t wait.
“We urge House passage of this critical legislation to help remedy this critical failing in our system to help families address the desperate and basic humanitarian needs.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).