In Aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican Students Regroup, Fundraise

As Hurricane Maria crashed into Puerto Rico on the morning of Sept. 20, Agustin A. Rodriguez Lopez ’19 could only group together with other Puerto Rican students on campus and wait.

Whipping the island with 150 mph winds and flooding the streets, the hurricane knocked out 80 percent of the island’s power transmission lines and cut off students’ hopes of communicating with family members. A Category 4 hurricane, Maria made landfall as the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years. The storm has already caused billions of dollars in damages and left the island in disarray as islanders attempt to rebuild.

“You almost feel powerless because for the first few hours you can’t do anything,” Rodriguez Lopez said. “Even though there is a big Puerto Rican community here, it can also feel completely isolating knowing you can’t reach your family.”

Rafael G. Escalera ’19 said that he has been texting his family in Puerto Rico constantly in the past week. He said that the storm winds were strong enough to rip storm shutters from his family’s apartment and cause supply shortages after the storm, leading to long lines at the gas station and grocery store.

“It’s just desperation. It’s incredibly frustrating if you look at the pictures on the internet and you recognize the places,” Escalera said. “This is where I bike. This is where I used to drive through to get to school. This is where my friend’s house is. Suddenly it doesn’t have a roof on it, and the street in front of it is like a river.”

Hurricane Maria came on the heels of Hurricane Irma, which left 1 million people in the region without electricity. Rodrigo E. Cordova ’19 said that his family regained power on September 19, but lost it when Maria made landfall the next day. That night, Cordova frantically texted Puerto Rican students at Harvard to finds strategies for communicating back home, all while trying to finish his homework.

“Late at night on Wednesday, we were all just freaking out to see if we can contact anyone,” Cordova said. “At that point we were not doing anything and we started to text each other. Every conversation started with ‘What have you heard?’ and ‘Is your family ok?’ We were trying to rally around each other and be with each other.”

After Hurricane Maria made landfall, the island’s struggled to distribute aid effectively. To prevent looting during the crisis, Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello issued a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew. Norman R. Storer '19 said that his parents described the atmosphere as akin to a war zone, with fuel distributed in military convoys and the National Guard patrolling gas stations with assault rifles.

As Puerto Rican residents rebuild, many have criticized the federal government for being slow to respond to the disaster.

“People on the island feel kind of forgotten,” Rodriguez Lopez said. “As frustrating it may be to see the lack of impetus in Congress and the federal government to approve potentially life saving emergency funding, it's not unsurprising.”

Students on campus have now turned their focus to fundraising for disaster relief. According to Rodriguez Lopez, La Organización de Puertorriqueños, a student group at Harvard, is trying to organize a donation drive this week. College students across the nation, including Harvard, have started a GoFundMe to raise money for victims of the storm, which has raised over $120,000 as of Thursday night.

“People are dying because they are not getting resources on time,” Cordova said. “It’s been hard the last couple weeks; we’re trying to do everything we can to make it better and any help students can provide would be immensely appreciated.”

Monica E. Reichard ’19, an inactive Crimson News editor, said that her family was without electricity and water as of Tuesday night. While Reichard has been distributing fundraising information to Harvard undergraduates, she said she is worried about the rebuilding and aftermath of the hurricane.

“I think it’s kind of a humanitarian crisis at best right now,” she said.

—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon contributed reporting.

—Staff writer William L. Wang can be reached at william.wang@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @wlwang20.

—Staff writer Angela N. Fu can be reached at angela.fu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @angelanfu.

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