Response to Hurricane Maria frustrates students

by Autumn Dinh | 10/12/17 2:00am

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican students at Dartmouth are frustrated by the response from both the College and the federal government. College administration did not contact students from Puerto Rico regarding the hurricane until about three weeks after it struck the island. Students impacted by Hurricane Irma received supportive emails a week after the hurricane’s incidence.

Assistant dean and director of case management Kristi Clemens said that she reached out to affected students before both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma to offer support and assure students that they could arrive on campus early or late if necessary.

“Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma occurred at a time when many of our students, both new first-year students and returning students, were on their way back to campus,” Clemens said.

A number of students reached out to Clemens for help with travel after Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, including for financial assistance with airline fees for rescheduling flights. The student affairs office has emergency funding set aside that can be used to reimburse students for damaged belongings and travel fees, among other expenses.

Puerto Rican students received the Irma outreach email sent Sept. 6 but did not receive a message of support from the College regarding Hurricane Maria until Oct. 10. Clemens said that her office did not send “proactive outreach” because students were on campus when Hurricane Maria hit and because they had received information about College resources after Hurricane Irma.

“The reason for that difference in outreach is because those students from Puerto Rico were already here on campus and we weren’t worried about travel impacting their plans, though obviously we’re still concerned about the devastation in Puerto Rico,” she said.

Since the hurricane hit, Puerto Rican students at Dartmouth have received a lot of support from their communities. Nicole Velez ’19, who was born in New York but grew up in San Juan, said that her sorority sisters in Kappa Delta Epsilon are planning a joint concert with some fraternities at the end of the month to raise money for disaster relief.

Daniel Torres ’21, who lives in Puerto Rico, also said that he received a lot of support from his floormates in McCulloch Hall and his Writing 5 professor Megan McIntyre.

“I feel a really strong sense of community here,” he said of the support.

Puerto Rico native Javier Garcia ’18 and Torres are both participating in a fundraising Facebook group of Puerto Ricans from over 50 colleges in the U.S. called Students With Puerto Rico. The GoFundMe page on the website has garnered significant donations, according to Garcia.

“We have raised over $150,000,” Garcia said. “Even Jimmy Fallon donated to us.”

All three students’ families are safe from the hurricane, they said, but the island was severely damaged.

“My family is lucky, but other friends of mine lost homes and family members,” Torres said. “I know families who must move to the U.S. to find new opportunities because they have lost everything.”

Garcia said his house was flooded after water broke through the windows. Velez said that her neighbor’s house fell onto her grandfather’s house.

The hurricane also destroyed Puerto Rico’s cell towers, leaving the island with barely any signal or power. Torres said that he had to wait for two days after the hurricane to know that his parents were safe, and three days to contact his relatives living in central Puerto Rico.

According to Velez, only people who have generators have electricity, yet access to gasoline to power these generators is itself very limited.

“My grandfather has to line up for seven hours to get only $15 of gas,” she said.

Torres also added that the curfew hours from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., imposed for the week after the hurricane, made it more difficult to buy gas.

Velez said some hospitals in San Juan have had to turn down patients because they are short on power. Moreover, the majority of the schools and colleges in Puerto Rico are closed, Torres said, and most of the students lost the whole semester because of the hurricane. He said that some families have to send their children to the U.S. to continue their studies.

“I feel very helpless,” Velez said. “I just want to fly back and help.”

Garcia said that he is nervous to go home in December and see the damage. Torres is optimistic about the rebuilding progress and the resilience of Puerto Ricans.

“We always move forward,” he said. “Hopefully by the time I get back on Christmas, the majority of the island will have already been rebuilt.”

Garcia added that he appreciates the local government’s hard work in the aftermath of the hurricane.

“The mayor of San Juan [Carmen Yulín Cruz] has been on the streets since day one, walking through the water and the flood to make sure that everyone is okay,” he said.

The three students expressed their frustration at the federal government’s response to the hurricane.

“[Trump’s] response is not only not good as a president, but also unacceptable as a human being,” Torres said.

He said that he felt “personally insulted as a Puerto Rican” when Trump compared the death toll from Hurricane Maria to that of Hurricane Katrina and told Puerto Ricans to feel “very proud” because their death toll was only 16.

“No human being would say that,” Torres said. “That’s 16 family members that people have lost. That’s 16 lives cut short. That’s 16 lives we value. Why would the president of the United States, the leader of the free world, say that that is nothing but a big deal?”

Garcia added that Trump’s recent focus on National Football League players refusing to stand for the national anthem, as opposed to focusing on relief efforts, made him feel like “a second-rate citizen.” He also expressed his disappointment in the government’s delay in granting a Jones Act waiver, which allows foreign vessels to enter U.S. territory, which, in this case, were vessels carrying aid. He said that this postponed aid in Puerto Rico and that the waiver was only for 10 days, which he said was not enough time for people to receive the aid they needed. Garcia added that Trump was quicker to waive the Jones Act for Texas and Florida after they were hit by Hurricane Harvey and Irma, which meant they received aid faster than Puerto Rico.

Velez expressed a similar sentiment about Trump.

“I’m really happy and really proud that the mayor of San Juan, [Cruz], has stood up against [Trump] on air,” Velez said.