Hurricane Maria: The Road to Recovery

ACS student chapter president Kathleen Chárriez continues recruitment efforts while organizing support campaigns after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

As college students, we face many challenges—academic, social, financial. But when an environmental crisis strikes, the impact devastates your sense of safety and your way of life, creating challenges that seem insurmountable. Shortly after I had transferred to Florida International University in 2017, my home in Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria. The fear and the loss I experienced was overwhelming. Thanks to my ACS family, I was given enough strength to endure the hard road to recovery that lay before me.

I first joined ACS in 2015 as a student member. I had the luck of being born on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. My home is, as we like to say, “in the perfect latitude and longitude,” where it is summer all year long, the smell of the sea follows you everywhere, and the mountains provide us with beautiful rivers and a refreshing breeze. Its geographic position and geographical characteristics give the island an almost surreal ecosystem. This Caribbean paradise has it all—dry forests, rainforests, mountains, and a beautiful coastline.

But in September of last year, the island was pummeled by Maria, a Category 5 hurricane documented as the worst on record to hit Puerto Rico. It flooded and destroyed homes, displaced people, washed away roads, and choked off health care availability and schooling by forcing hospital and school closures. A study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health estimated that the deaths of as many as 4,645 people were caused by delays in medical care.

Hurricane Maria damage to homes in Puerto Rico
Aerial view of a home in the mountainous area of Naranjito, Puerto Rico, severely damaged by the strong winds of Hurricane Maria.
Credit: A. Booher/FEMA

During a very hard process, I found a mom in Dr. Milagros Delgado, a grandmother in Dr. Zaida Morales-Martinez, both longtime ACS volunteers. We all suffered the desperation of not being able to contact our families. They grounded me, and, together, we channeled our emotions and made a plan.

Even today, the island is still not nearly close to being rebuilt, and its citizens are getting restless as the next hurricane season approaches. The roofs of a lot of houses, including my grandparents’ home in Toa Alta, were blown off completely during the hurricane. When you fly in toward the island, you can see from the sky an incredible number of blue awnings substituting for what were once roofs. Many of the trees and palm trees, which provided some protection from the wind, are also gone. The island’s biggest natural protection, the El Yunque rainforest, suffered extensive damage. Needless to say, we are worried about how we will survive another disaster.

When Hurricane Maria hit, I learned from my ACS family what I could do as an ACS student chapter leader within the community I was involved in. I wrote a letter to FIU’s administration asking them to allow students from Puerto Rico to pay in-state tuition, since most of us have families in Florida. At first they declined. But with a little bit of perseverance and great mentorship, my request was granted, easing our financial burden a bit.

Meanwhile, our ACS chapter got in contact with multiple student associations and volunteers from different Caribbean countries. I presented my plan to help with food and supplies in a group chat. We also went through classrooms announcing the collection. The supplies were then taken to a collection center where we helped with packing and labeling in the weeks following the disaster. In this moment, I had found a purpose that I could carry out through my student chapter, and I realized that by being a student leader in the ACS, my reach extended much further and I could impact more lives than I ever would have believed possible.

In a speech given at the 2018 national meeting in New Orleans, Dr. Ingrid Montes spoke of the resilience, effort, and cooperation she witnessed. “It was very special to receive so many messages from ACS members expressing their solidarity and willingness to help in any way needed,” she said. “Every message was full of positive thoughts to inspire us and let us understand that ACS was with us. On behalf of ACS-Puerto Rico, student chapters, and the citizens of the island, I want to thank ACS members and staff that from the first day, and at different stages of the recovery, have been committed to assist us.”

Volunteers distribute water and supplies in Puerto Rico.

I echo her sentiments with gratitude to ACS for saying “you are not alone” in a time of crisis, when students inside and outside of the island were looking desperately for a way to aid our families. Along with all the support from Dr. Ingrid Montes (we call her “Mami Ingrid”), ACS also assisted the Puerto Rico chapters by extending submission deadlines since there was no power in most of the island for more than a month after Hurricane Maria.

The challenges continue. There are still some areas without power, and damage to our lines mean large power outages still continue. The need to import supplies to rebuild and live, along with continued political and economic challenges, has slowed progress. It is frustrating to see my home and know how much more it will take to get it back to pre-hurricane strength.

However, I will forever be grateful for the hope and compassion shown to our home in its time of need.

About the Author

Kathleen L. Chárriez
is an environmental research student at Florida International University and president of the ACS student chapter at the university.