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Returning to Puerto Rico

For many students from Puerto Rico, the upcoming semester break will be their first trip back home since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in late September.

Claudia Fuentes ’18 is focused on celebrating Christmas with her family.

“I am so excited,” said Fuentes. “Christmas in Puerto Rico is the best thing in the world. It’s amazing, and I just want to see my family.”

Although it has been more than two months, the hurricane has left a long-term impact on the island.

Fuentes said power at her family home is still on and off. Her parents told her they will get power for two days and then it will be off the next two days.

“There are still millions of people who remain without electricity or running water,” said Richard Warren, Ph.D., professor of history, who specializes in Latin American history. “The infrastructure was devastated. Many properties, homes and commercial properties remain in ruins.”

Natalia Velazquez Lopez ’21 found something similar when she went home to Puerto Rico for Thanksgiving.

“It was a sight that I couldn’t believe, no matter how much I saw it on the news,” she said.

Velazquez Lopez said the damage is most noticeable outside the capital of San Juan. Branches, trees and light posts are piled up on the side of the roads, which are marked with holes from where trees fell.

Since the hurricane, about 200,000 people have moved off the island to cities on the mainland, particularly Orlando, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.

“Whether they go back or not is an interesting question and challenge,” Warren said. “Some experts estimate that as much as 10 percent of the population is going to move out. So what does recovery mean when you have a 10 percent population loss for the foreseeable future?”

Fuentes said the best way to help Puerto Rico is by becoming aware of the issues it faces. “Puerto Rico was in the tabloids for a little while, but then something else happens so people forget about it,” she said.

Recovery efforts are also complicated by the fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but have no representation in congress.

“For disaster recovery, the island is very much dependent upon the federal government and simultaneously does not have voices represented in Washington with the same kind of power and leverage as states do,” Warren said.

Still, the island is slowly rebuilding, as Velazquez Lopez also noticed when she was home in November.

“It honestly broke my heart to see how my beautiful island had to go through such a horrible event,” said Velazquez Lopez. “But at the same time, it felt empowering seeing all Boricuas working together to rebuild our strong island. I was truly inspired seeing how we worked together to help each other in such desperate times.”

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Marissa Purnell

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