Hurricane María’s landfall in Cambridge

Trying to focus on graduate school despite natural disaster in my home country
APRIL 2018
Cristina
T.C.
Biological Engineering

Moving to a new place after spending a whole life on a small island in the Caribbean was very daunting. My expectations as a first-year graduate student in New England were not out of the ordinary. I would have to adjust to a different culture, prepare for different weather (far colder than anything I had experienced), meet new people, and build a completely new social circle. Not to mention homesickness and self-doubt (do I really belong here?). My family and friends in Puerto Rico were going to be my main support during these hard times.

However, less than a month into my first semester at MIT, record-breaking hurricanes were ravaging the Caribbean. After Irma damaged the region, the lesser Antilles and the archipelago of Puerto Rico were hit again, this time by Hurricane María, a category 4 storm.

This was unlike anything I had experienced before. Hurricane season happens every year, and every time a storm hits, I expect the usual from an already compromised infrastructure: power and water outages. However, what happened was not anything I could have predicted. On September 20, I was faced with complete silence: all my social media accounts, mainly connected to Puerto Ricans on the island, went flat. There were no new posts. I kept refreshing my feeds to find old posts from days before.

When posts finally started coming out from major news outlets, it was mainly photos and videos of the moments Hurricane María had caused destruction. I had no news from my friends or family. During that time, I kept communicating with family and friends that were in the US, asking if they had heard anything from anyone. For this period, I kept thinking about all the possible things that could have happened to my loved ones. Going to classes and events at MIT were the only things keeping me distracted, even though I never payed attention to what was really happening around me.

I heard from my family two weeks after the hurricane. I will never forget the words my mom told me to keep me calm, “We are okay health-wise, we don’t have much food or any water and there is a lot of damage, but we are okay health-wise.” I talked to them for less than 10 minutes, and communication was scarce and rare after that.

For a while things started to seem okay, my friends began posting that they were safe or that they had found a family member they were looking for. However, news started to turn ugly very quickly. People were requesting medical supplies that they couldn’t find anywhere. News of relatives passing away became a norm. The hospital in my hometown was partially closed because the smell of dead bodies was rendering it inoperable. Hospitals did not have working generators. Official death counts remained low, and the Governor of Puerto Rico issued a recount only after journalists called out the number. They counted up to a thousand deaths. To this day, there isn’t an official count, and there are still a significant number of missing people on the island.

While all of this was happening back home, I was at MIT trying to work on courses and choosing a suitable lab and research advisor. Keeping up with the demanding coursework was adding to all the stress. It’s safe to say that many times during the semester, I kept losing focus and wondering whether I should have been back home. I received messages from faculty and classmates who were curious about the situation and wondering if I was okay. However, the answer to that question was difficult. I was okay. I was safe. I had power and running water. I had food and a roof to sleep under, whereas a lot of the people back home didn’t have any of these things (and many still don’t).

After much internal debate and getting lost in the rush of things, I chose to stay at MIT. I realized that going back home in the middle of the semester would have been useless., I would have tried to help, but would have ended up using my family’s already scarce resources. After my only final, I packed my bags and was seated on a plane five hours later. I arrived in Puerto Rico at a small airport in my hometown of Aguadilla around midnight, and was greeted by my family with many hugs and tears.

Even then, I knew that the Puerto Rico I had landed on was not the same one I had left in August.

Everything I saw was remnants of both natural and governmental disasters. Homes in my community were destroyed, wires were dangling from broken posts, debris remained in the streets, lack of power in traffic lights all the way from Aguadilla to San Juan made driving complete mayhem. Both the Puerto Rican and US government’s lack of a contingency plan had prolonged recovery and safety for Puerto Ricans.

   

Left: Destroyed home. Right: Puerto Ricans waiting in line to purchase gas, while monitored by police. Collection of images by Steph Segarra.

In December, around half of Puerto Ricans remained without power. My family’s home was fortunate because local electricians took it upon themselves to restore power in the community. Even then, having power was not permanent, and often we found ourselves sitting and chatting in the dark. Asking for an internet connection was a bit too much at that point. So, for the three weeks I spent in Puerto Rico, I sat and listened to my family and friend’s stories about how they are surviving María’s aftermath.

School semesters were extended and scheduled to finish during the spring. Students, like my brother and many friends, had no choice but to continue a semester without consideration of whether they had power, water, or internet access. Many times, classes continued in the dark.

Collecting rain water and showering under it and in streams or rivers was also a regular thing to do. The race for items such as food and gasoline was also troublesome, as Puerto Ricans had to wait over 15 hours in line to get a few food items or ten dollars of gas. The inability of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to respond to Puerto Ricans’ basic needs outside of the metropolitan areas and reach other hometowns including my own was also part of the discussion. Whether FEMA helped your family became somewhat random, as it was up to them to determine if the destruction to your home was due to the hurricane or your own negligence (as if controlling floods and high wind speeds was possible).

Concerns about Puerto Ricans’ mental health arose when suicide counts reached 37 after María, and the ASSMCA (Administración de Servicios de Salud y Contra la Adicción) received over 4,000 calls, of which 611 were related to suicide. The number increased to 792 the following month after María. These rates are high and worrisome.

Although there are countless stories about how Puerto Ricans are coping with the aftermath, it’s unsure when Puerto Rico will be recovered. Before the 2017 hurricane season, protests had erupted all throughout the island after the Fiscal Control Board and recently elected Governor implemented harsh labor reforms and budget cuts to higher education and healthcare. The University of Puerto Rico, of which I am an alumna, is facing over $400 million in budget cuts. The recently passed GOP Tax Bill also requests tax on Puerto Rico that will negatively affect the already-crippled economy.

While all of this happens, I’m back in Cambridge and continue to pursue my PhD, but with the inevitable hope that what I learn at MIT I can use to contribute to my country in the future.