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Puerto Rican students share the effects of Hurricane Maria By Abby Charpentier

On Wednesday, Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, creating devastating damages. Houses were destroyed, streets were flooded and the whole island was left in the dark without electricity. Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló said, "This has been the biggest catastrophe in the history of Puerto Rico in terms of natural disasters."

At the University of Massachusetts, where over 1,400 undergraduate students are Hispanic or Latino, Hurricane Maria has affected a significant portion of the student body.

Cristian Lopez, a senior economics and Spanish double major, shared how it has been difficult trying to communicate with family down in Puerto Rico. They moved to the continental United States about 10 years ago, but most of his extended family still lives in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.

“I spoke to my mom two days ago, and she was able to communicate with my family over there for a couple of minutes, like two or three minutes, just so they could tell her they’re safe…There’s a special landline that they use that the government provided over there, but it was very brief because there’s a lot of people in line to communicate with their families over here,” Lopez said.

He said his family is going to contact his relatives through Facebook because it’s easier to use the internet rather than a phone service.

"Our president said he was going to help out, but he hasn't done anything yet."

Lopez said the limited communication is tough because he is unsure how to help those in need. He mentioned how he and a lot of other people don’t trust the American Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations.

“It’s hard because the United States hasn’t done much for Puerto Rico…It’s a territory, but it’s still part of the United States so they should help them out, but they really don’t," Lopez said. "Our president said he was going to help out, but he hasn’t done anything yet.”

Astrid Esquilin Nieves, a senior linguistics and French double major who grew up in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, is facing similar problems, as she has family members living in Naguabo, Humacao and Fajardo.

“I only have contact with one of my grandmas from my dad’s side, and she was telling me, ‘I have to sleep in the living room because my room is flooded. The bathroom is flooded,’” Esquilin Nieves said.

She explained that her grandma has a landline, so she was able to call, but everyone else has cell phones: “There’s no power so everyone’s phones are unplugged, and you can’t charge [them]. I have no communication with the rest of my family that’s still down there.”

"Just try to be as informed as you can, and if that resonates with you, then do something about it."

Esquilin Nieves moved to New London, Conn. in 2010 with her mom, step-dad and sister. In 2013, they moved to Springfield, Mass. Her father and step-mother also live in the United States.

As an event coordinator for the student group Latinos Unidos, Esquilin Nieves talked about an event to be held on Saturday night called “Noche Latina.” The event’s page on Facebook describes it as “a night full of dancing, music, battles, learning and more.”

According to Esquilin Nieves, during the event, a slideshow will be presented about Puerto Rico and how students can help. A donation box will also be present, and students are encouraged to bring supplies.

Esquilin Nieves believes having a little bit of support and contributing to the cause helps.

“People should read about what is going on and stay informed, because if you’re not aware of what’s going on outside of where you live, I think that’s a problem,” she said. Just try to be [as] informed as you can, and if that resonates with you, then do something about it.”

Marketing junior Andres Villeta Astacio was born and raised in San Juan, and came to UMass after receiving various scholarships and grants.

Like many others, his main form of communication with family has been through Facebook. His mother received service for the first time on Tuesday and was able to make calls. It was happily reported that all of his family is safe.

To raise awareness of the devastation in his home country, Villeta Astacio has created a video depicting a shot from outer space of the eye of Hurricane Maria accompanied by audio of news reports of the hurricane. Toward the end of the video, he urges people to donate and volunteer to help out Puerto Ricans affected by the storm. He plans to raise even more awareness by setting up a table at the Campus Center within the next week.

However, Villeta Astacio is getting worried as time passes, because gasoline and food are running out. People are sending supplies, but he believes they are not being distributed well.

“The response has been slow…maybe it’s hard because all of the communication is down,” Villeta Astacio said.

"The response has been slow...maybe it's because all of the communication is down."

He was also worried about the impact the Jones Act, a law restricting commerce to Puerto Rico, is having on international aid. However, the Jones Act was temporarily waived the day after Villeta Astacio spoke to the Daily Collegian.

In preparation of Hurricane Irma, Villeta Astacio’s family collected items such as flashlights and canned foods. After Irma passed and left little damage, though, they had no idea what was instore with Hurricane Maria.

Villeta Astacio said his house was built well, so it is still standing. However, he has many friends whose houses and cars were damaged.

He encourages people to call their congressmen because the response is slow and conditions are getting worse. Food is being wasted because it can’t be cooked or refrigerated, roads and bridges are destroyed and they will have to rebuild their power grid from scratch, which will be especially difficult with Puerto Rico’s current debt crisis. It is predicted people will not have power anywhere from four to 12 months from now.

Bahati Nkera, a biochemistry and psychology double major, has started his own fund to help the victims of Hurricane Maria.

The junior said that during the summer, he had an internship at Purdue University, and he connected with 15 people, many of whom were from Puerto Rico. The group has stayed close and has been communicating over the past few months.

Nkera reached out to a friend currently attending Purdue University, who is a Puerto Rican native, asking how he can be proactive and help. His friend suggested he hold off for a while, saying the government is corrupt and organizations like The Red Cross can be helpful, but they only donate a portion of the money they raise.

Nkera wanted to create a place where donations will be safe and given directly to the victims, so he decided to work with a few of his friends in Puerto Rico and establish a fund in the United States.

"The devastation there is insane."

Since creating the GoFundMe on Saturday morning, he has gone to his classes to talk about his efforts and shared it on social media. His goal is to raise $2,000. As of Sept. 28, he has raised $711.

He is also the Vice President of the Diversity and Psychology Club (DPC) and plans to start a donation drive within the next two weeks with the club.

“I know with fundraisers, they usually get a lot of pull in the beginning…That’s when you get the most donations and the most amount of spotlight, but after that, it fizzles out. But it won’t stop there,” Nkera said.

He said he is going to fundraise as long as he can.

Nkera will be sending the first round of donations to Puerto Rico through his friend at Purdue, who flies down to the island next week. He is attending a conference in November with a few of his friends he met at his internship, and he will bring along donations and supplies for them to bring back to Puerto Rico and distribute. Nkera himself will visit the island in December, and he will give donations directly to the victims.

“The devastation there is insane,” he said. “I don’t think people really understand because there hasn’t been a lot of media coverage with it, and the media coverage that has been happening doesn’t show the full extent of the picture of what’s happening.”

Leonor Ayala-Sanchez, a junior management major, said the situation is difficult and nerve-racking; though, she noted she has contact with most of her family.

“I have faith and confidence, but of course in the back of my mind I am always worrying,” she said.

She has been able to reach all except one member of her family through Facebook. Some people have been able to get service on their cell phones, but they are trying to save the battery. Word of mouth is one of the more popular forms of communication.

Ayala-Sanchez was born and raised in the United States and currently lives in Springfield, Mass., but most of her family lives in Aguas Buenas. The last time she visited Puerto Rico was during her freshman year of high school.

She thinks the University should offer counseling sessions or meetings for students affected, as well as have the campus become a local donation center. She listed off items such as cash, clothes, books, toothbrushes, toiletries and other various items, stating, “Anything is better than nothing.”

Lopez, Esquilin Nieves, Villeta Astacio and Nkera

“I don’t want people to get discouraged or too concerned about the president not putting in his input, because I guess his biggest concern right now is the NFL rather than Puerto Rico…We don’t need a man who isn’t going to support us right now," Ayala-Sanchez said. "We need to stick with the people that care about it and really truly want to help. And that’s what we mainly need, genuine people and genuine support.”

“I have faith in my island. We are very resilient, so I know we are going to make it through,” she said.

Photos by Erica Lowenkron, Katherine Mayo and Jessica Picard.

Abigail Charpentier can be reached at acharpentier@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @abigailcharp.

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