Home Campus Puerto Rican students still struggle three months after the storm

Puerto Rican students still struggle three months after the storm

10 min read

Some Puerto Rican families have relocated. Others remain on the island. For students at Ohio U, not knowing what waits for them back home, if anything, is infuriating.

Gabriela Soto would go home for winter break, if it weren’t for the looters, power outages and widespread devastation. Instead, she will meet her family in Florida, where many other Puerto Ricans have joined them after relocating from the island. Hurricane Maria hit peak intensity three months ago, on Sept. 19, but the storm is still present for the Ohio University freshman and her family.

“The first time I heard from my mom, it was like five days after the hurricane and it wasn’t even a conversation,” she said.

“It was just her telling me ‘I need you to go back to your dorm and buy us plane tickets because we need to leave right now.’”

Purchasing the tickets was a challenge in itself, as flights continued to get canceled. Gabriela was finally able to buy them three days later, only to have the flight canceled the day before it was scheduled to take off, leaving her to repeat the process yet again.

She said that the situation in her home community was getting tense. That the robbery and violence were only increasing as days turned to weeks of no electricity in the area.

Her mother, father, and 15-year-old sister needed to leave, immediately.

“What am I supposed to do, just sit here and listen to them cry through the phone that they are trying to find food?” she asked.

“I listen to the news and see how all of my community is struggling, that there is no water. I’m just here and I have my food and my bed and everything, and I know they are going to be going through a lot of stuff that I can’t do anything about.”

Gabriela said she learned about the extent of the destruction from the storm via images posted by her friends on Instagram and Twitter. She saw damaged homes and ruined roadways, but the pictures also provided the reassurance that Gabriela’s friends survived the storm.

The posts, however, further emphasized the distance between Gabriela and her community.

“Imagine just seeing that, and knowing those people, and you can’t do anything about it,” she said.

“You can’t help. We can do fundraisers, but how many fundraisers can rebuild the whole island?”

For freshman Isabella Philippi, the situation isn’t much better.

Her family, which consists of her mother, father and 16-year-old sister, has remained on the island since the storm hit. But Isabella said that life for them hasn’t calmed down.

“Power has been on and off recently, so it’s been back and forth, my parents moving back to the house and back to my grandparents’ house and back again,” she said.

Before the storm hit, her parents told Isabella not to worry, that they had storm protectors installed throughout their home and that they were going to her grandparents’ house for better protection and access to their backup generator.

“They said ‘If you don’t hear anything, it’s fine, just calm down,’” Isabella said.

“It wasn’t helpful at all, because I was so anxious.”

Three days later, her mother finally got in touch with Isabella through WhatsApp, as cell service remained spotty throughout their home city of San Juan. After a few more days, Isabella could finally see the extent of the damage through the images and videos her mother sent her.

“She sent me a video of the street I live on and I didn’t even recognize it,” Isabella said. She described seeing palm trees on the ground and streets filled with sand and water. Buildings, she said, were missing entire sections.

“Pure and total devastation, honestly. Everything is still just horribly affected. It’s not over, it’s gonna take years and it’s gonna take a lot of help,” Isabella said.

The response from the U.S. federal government, according to both Gabriela and Isabella, has been lackluster.

“The soldiers that came in from the U.S. mainland were trying to help so much, but they weren’t getting the orders from the head honcho himself,” Isabella said of Pres. Donald Trump’s response efforts.

“It was very frustrating because my mother kept telling me that they were trying to help, but they couldn’t at all.”

Gabriela said that many Puerto Ricans have yet to receive any type of support, months after the storm passed.

“I know so many people whose houses are destroyed and they haven’t received anything,” she said.

Despite this, Trump has given the recovery efforts a 10 out of 10, a claim that both freshmen vehemently objected. But they have optimistic visions for the future.

Gabriela says the hurricane served as a wakeup call for the people of Puerto Rico and has even brought her family closer together, distance notwithstanding.

“I think it will make us better,” she said.

“We know that we can actually handle it and that this won’t happen again. We won’t allow this to happen again. Even though it’s been hell, we’ve actually managed to stay close and keep in contact. We make sure each one of us is okay and getting what we need.”

The Puerto Rican spirit, Isabella believes, will rejuvenate the people of the island to get through the challenges they face.

“I know my people are gonna get back up, because we’re strong and resilient,” she said.

“Right now, everyone is saying ‘Puerto Rico se levanta,’ which means Puerto Rico gets back up, because we’re strong people. I know my people. We’re great and we’re gonna get through this.”

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