clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The emotional story of Mormon missionaries airlifted out of Puerto Rico

SALT LAKE CITY — A direct hit by Hurricane Maria first decimated Puerto Rico. Now it is scattering the Mormon missionaries of the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission all over the United States.

LDS Church leaders decided Friday to evacuate all 155 missionaries and reassign them to Spanish-speaking missions from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Yakima, Washington. The final 118 missionaries arrived in Miami on Tuesday evening, according to Andrea Wilde Lutz, whose parents were serving in Puerto Rico as senior missionaries.

"We all felt heartbroken, completely heartbroken, to leave our island and the people that we loved," said Eliza Turner, 20, one of 36 women evacuated to Atlanta on Saturday. A single elder made it to Atlanta, too. On Sunday, Turner flew home to Idaho Falls, Idaho, one of six sent home early because she had just weeks left on her 18-month assignment.

"No one complained," Turner said, "but it was really upsetting. It's very painful."

Three dozen women evacuated from the Mormon mission in Puerto Rico load what's left of their belongings in a trailer outside the Atlanta airport on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Most left more than half of their belongings behind in their apartments when they moved to the mission home in San Juan the day before Hurricane Maria hit. | Courtesy Scott Marsh

It's the second time in four years that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has evacuated an entire mission. The Puerto Rico Mission is not closed, but missionaries won't return until basic infrastructure is rebuilt.

A week after Hurricane Maria, most of the island still had no power, no phone service, no internet and no running water. The entire island is on a water-boil notice. Food, drinking water and fuel — and flights out — are scarce and rationed. A curfew is in place from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

All but two of the missionaries safely rode out Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20 at the mission home in San Juan or the mission office in Bayamón. They weren't aware how badly the storm ravaged Puerto Rico.

They were stunned by what they saw as they flew out.

"Everything was stripped of its green," Turner said. "It was really strange to fly over Puerto Rico and see its color gone."

They are splitting up now, but the missionaries have a united message: Pray for Puerto Rico.

Tough news

Gathering 55 sister missionaries at the San Juan mission home on Friday night to tell them that church leaders had decided to evacuate and reassign them was difficult for San Juan Mission President David Smart, a former senior vice president for Mattel Inc. in Hong Kong.

He read off their new assignments, which included Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Texas, Utah and Washington. One woman was reassigned to Mexico and another to Guatemala.

Puerto Rico San Juan Mission President David Smart, center, talks to 55 sister missionaries after announcing they would be evacuated from the hurricane-decimated island and reassigned to other Mormon missions across the United States. The announcement happened in the San Juan mission home on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. | Courtesy Eliza Turner

"President Smart was very sad," Turner said. "I can't imagine how he felt telling his missionaries they needed to go somewhere else. But he was full of determination that we would come back. He said very strongly that the mission was not closed."

They wanted to stay and help Puerto Rico rebuild, but Turner's mother said it was the right call to evacuate the mission until power and water and other supplies are restored, then return and help.

"You have an extra 155 mouths to feed," Melinda Turner said. "It makes sense to let the resources go to the island until it's a little more stable."

The LDS Church is distributing food in Puerto Rico now and shipping nonperishable food items and building materials from its U.S. welfare facilities. The church also is supporting the Red Cross and other relief agencies as they shelter displaced people and provide other help.

On Saturday morning, Smart led a caravan of nearly two dozen vehicles packed with all 55 sister missionaries and more than 20 elders to the airport, where they found chaos, according to Turner and other missionaries who were evacuated. The airport is small and flights are limited because of radar damaged by the hurricane and inbound humanitarian flights. A jet fuel shortage means planes must be big enough to fly in and back out without refueling. Commercial service is not expected to resume until Friday. Several airlines have waiting lists of 20,000 people each, according to the website PR Informa.

Sister Ashley Paget's handwritten boarding pass, a symbol of the chaos at the San Juan airport in Puerto Rico. She and 35 other women didn't know until the final minutes whether they would be permitted on the plane that had carried humanitarian workers to the island on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Another 19 women from the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission didn't make it on the plane and remained on the island until Tuesday. | Courtesy Ashley Paget

But Saturday morning, a humanitarian flight full of Red Cross workers landed and had room for some passengers. Smart managed to get 36 of the sister missionaries on the plane. He sent to the front of the line the sister missionaries who were serving as training leaders or who were headed home so they could help the women from Mexico and Guatemala catch connecting flights. The other 19 women returned to the mission home, according to Turner.

The LDS Church's Missionary Department and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, scrambled Tuesday to arrange the flight for the remaining missionaries, according to Hatch's office staff.

Meanwhile, their mothers and fathers tested the capacity of Facebook's cloud, filling it with messages of faith, hope, concern, rumor and information.

Shower and spaghetti

The 36 women who flew to Atlanta on Saturday arrived late in the day. They were picked up there by Georgia Atlanta North Mission President Scott Marsh and his wife, Mary. He is a former adjunct business professor at BYU and owner of Scott Marsh Financial LLC.

The Marshes took the missionaries to the Atlanta North Mission home.

"It felt like the Celestial Kingdom," Turner said.

What the missionaries wanted most was a shower, Marsh told the Deseret News. He said local stakes supplied a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs for the tired, hungry group.

Three dozen sister missionaries evacuated from the Mormon mission in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria pose in the Georgia Atlanta North mission home after eating a spaghetti dinner on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. "It was a great honor to serve these young missionaries," Atlanta North Mission President Scott Marsh said. "They had huddled in their mission home for Hurricane Maria, had not showered in four or five days, did not have good access to information about what was going on around them, had lost most of their belongings which they simply had to leave behind and had to endure the emotions of leaving behind investigators, members, fellow missionaries and others still in harm's way. Through it all they | Courtesy Scott Marsh

"It was the best food and the best warm shower any of us has ever had," said Sister Ashley Paget, 20, who arrived home in Farmington on Sunday.

"Despite everything, they were full of energy," Marsh said.

After showers and dinner, the 36 women knelt on the small kitchen floor together with the Marshes for a prayer.

"It was very emotional," Marsh said. "It was sobbing. They were thinking about leaving behind in a vulnerable position their fellow missionaries and the people they'd been teaching and fellowshipping."

Sister Sarah Pearce, who was headed home early to Nashville, Tennessee, spoke a prayer.

"It was a prayer of huge gratitude," Paget said. "It was also a prayer of supplication that the rest of the missionaries could be evacuated, that the remaining church members would be a light on the island to others without us and that the missionaries could return to help as soon as possible.

"The Spirit was electric, and we were all in tears again."

A precedent

This isn't the first time a natural disaster has forced LDS leaders to evacuate an entire mission. In November 2013, the church evacuated 204 missionaries from the Philippines Tacloban Mission. Four months later, 162 missionaries returned to Tacloban, minus those who had completed their missionary service.

Smart and his wife and all but one senior missionary couple left Puerto Rico on Tuesday as well. The Smarts will live in the Dominican Republic and commute to Puerto Rico to help church members and restore the mission.

Smart and his assistants texted detailed instructions to the Puerto Rico missionaries ahead of Hurricane Irma. When Maria approached, Turner said she felt well-prepared. The weekend before, Smart instructed them to buy food and three jugs of water. On Sept. 18, he told them to bunker down in their apartments by 5 p.m. on the 19th. Maria was scheduled to hit that night or the next morning.

But on the morning of the 19th, he changed the plan, instructing all the missionaries to bring all their water and food and evacuate to the mission home for the 55 women and the mission office for the 100 men.

Turner, the Idaho Falls native who had studied for a semester at BYU-Idaho before her mission, brought a few extra clothes, her scriptures and journals, her camera and flash drive. She left her books, study journals, souvenirs, gifts from members and most of her clothes. Like many missionaries, she doesn't know if her belongings survived the storm or if she'll ever see them again.

"I don't have much right now," she said after returning home to Idaho Falls, "but that's OK. It's all just material things."

Harrowing journey

Two elders didn't make it to the mission office, trapped by the Category 5 hurricane on the island of Dominica.

"I won't explain it all, but Tuesday to Saturday were extremely difficult," Elder Carlos Mancilla said in an email to his mother on Monday. "All but one member (on Dominica) lost their homes."

The U.S. embassy has declared Dominica uninhabitable and everyone on the island must evacuate. Mancilla and his companion each took a backpack and hiked trails for a couple of days until they reached safety. A military helicopter evacuated them off the island. They caught a plane to Martinique, where they arrived on Saturday and met up with missionaries from the church's Barbados Bridgetown Mission, which Mancilla described as "#bestfeelingever."

The hurricane hit the mission home in San Juan at 2 a.m. and raged until 8 a.m. Most of the 55 sister missionaries slept on floors. Most woke up at 3 a.m.

"It sounded like a train whistle," she said. The wind ripped a board off the window to her room and whipped the wind through cracks and into the house, covering the floors with water. The roof sustained serious damage and water damaged the walls and paint.

Still, it didn't seem too bad until Smart sent them to look outside in the morning. They put on yellow "Mormon Helping Hands" vests and went to work clearing yards and streets of trees and debris. A neighbor was so grateful for the help that he offered his pool water to the women to wash their hair and for bathroom use.

"We saw as we worked that we made a huge difference," Turner said. "What 55 willing hearts and pairs of hands can do is a lot."

They'll return

Even the missionaries whose service is over pledged to return to Puerto Rico.

Both Turner and Paget had separate trips planned with their parents in late November. Instead of visiting friends and the beach, now they hope to bring humanitarian aid and helping hands.

For now, though, they grapple with their emotions. They worry about the Puerto Ricans. Paget said she feels survivor's guilt and her heart aches "for people who have nothing."

"It was honestly one of the hardest things to hear in my life," Paget said, talking about learning she was going home. "There were lots of tears. I was almost a little bit hysterical. 'I cannot go home yet.' But one of my former companions said, 'You know, it's not often you can know an apostle looked at your name and felt the Lord was pleased with your efforts on your mission and felt it wasn't necessary for you to go to another mission for two months."

Turner said those feeling are intensified because it's impossible to communicate with people she grew to love and know whether they are safe.

"It's a sense of helplessness," she said. "I know Heavenly Father will protect them, but helplessness in the sense that I can't do anything to help them.

"We would appreciate the prayers of everyone in their behalf."

Those who wish to help can make a donation to the LDS Church's humanitarian fund.