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'Every day was different': GF Salvation Army chief leads Puerto Rico relief

Lt. Matthew Beatty of the Salvation Army in Grand Forks coordinated the organization's disaster relief in Puerto Rico while his wife, Lt. Rona Mutcha, oversaw its work in Grand Forks. (Photo courtesy of Salvation Army)

GRAND FORKS — Lt. Matthew Beatty, who heads the Salvation Army in Grand Forks, landed in Puerto Rico in mid-October. He was soon struck by the island's nighttime appearance—far darker, after hurricane winds had knocked out power, than it had ever been before.

Beatty was there to lead the Salvation Army's emergency response, a job that came with a dizzying number of responsibilities. "Logistics, operations, liaisons, planning, safety, distributions, communications—the list is—it just goes on forever," he said, sitting back in his office in Grand Forks.

Beatty said he led a staff of dozens of people overseeing all Salvation Army relief efforts on the island, with food and water access a top priority. As he traveled, he saw clusters of cars by the road where people had managed to find a cellphone signal, Puerto Ricans drinking water draining off mountains and others eating wild game and rationing their food, waiting for help to arrive.

"Every day was different," Beatty remembers. Early in his trip, he remembers a generator failing at his command center. Water was scarce, too, and Beatty remembers rationing 64 ounces—just half a gallon—over two days for both showering and drinking.

It's hard to imagine those feats now, as he sits in his office in a clean white shirt, coordinating this winter's red kettle drive, but Beatty thrives on it. Once a nightclub manager in Missouri, he came to the Salvation Army in 2009 after wrestling an alcohol addiction, earning his first job with the organization making $10 an hour in a thrift store in Kansas City. But a 10-day mission to the Philippines led to a two-year missionary trip, and later to high-level typhoon relief efforts in 2013. Now he speaks Filipino, married his wife, Rona, a Filipina woman, and loves what he does.

Beatty spoke frankly about the intensity of the devastation in Puerto Rico. Besides tangible relief, his team offered "spiritual" relief, too, offering a chance to pray or talk.

"They don't want to hear 'I understand how you've been, it'll be OK,' " he said. "The best thing is to shut up and listen."

Puerto Rico has been in the national spotlight for weeks as relief has dragged on, and has at times been a political thorn in the Trump administration's side as some observers and Puerto Ricans have openly wondered at the quality of relief response. Asked about those criticisms, Beatty said many efforts are hamstrung by geography. With one major port at San Juan, it's difficult to provide for the island.

"And when you have stuff coming in from around the world, literally, you can only fit so much in through the mouth of a Coke bottle," he said.

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

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