Extreme weather systems have devastated the western coasts of North and Central America. Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma struck at the beginning of the month, followed by a 6.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico, and now a Category 5-turned-Category-4 Hurricane Maria. While all have left great damage in their paths, Maria has been arguably the most destructive, hitting Puerto Rico Wednesday morning, and continuing its course through the country for more than 24 hours.
The detrimental effects of Hurricane Maria have only added onto the economic crisis Puerto Rico has faced in the past decade, which was caused by debt and recession.
LSA senior Juan Fossas was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His family has been confirmed as safe, yet his connection to them is extremely limited as only one of his extended family members has had working cell service.
“Thankfully my house is well built and concrete," he said. "I knew my family would be fine, but it’s mainly the other people I’m worried about. My neighbors, people that live in poorer areas, people that live close to rivers."
According to Fossas, his family and some close friends have all congregated in his home as a temporary solution to the long-term process of restabilization. It has been said regaining electricity throughout the country may take up to six months.
Fossas has not asked for any extra support in the form of classes off, but he said that he has no doubt the University of Michigan community would provide support in such an instance.
“People here are very understanding. A friend of mine, a fellow Puerto Rican, has been reached out to by professors who asked him if he needs help,” he said. “Students have been really helpful too, anyone who knows that I’m from Puerto Rico has asked me if my family is OK, if everything is good.”
Fossas expressed his frustration with the lack of representation of Puerto Rico in U.S. politics as well as media coverage, claiming they are stuck in a political and economic middle-ground, and are not treated equally as citizens.
“‘We belong to the U.S., but we are not part of the U.S.’ … that’s a rough translation of a quote I’ve heard," he said. "It basically means that, yeah, if you say Puerto Rico, some people know it's part of the U.S. and some people don't … and some people don’t even recognize us as legitimate Americans."
According to Fossas, the main challenge Puerto Ricans must face to gain support is the lack of representation in media outlets. He compared the nearly 24-hour news coverage of Hurricane Harvey to the far lesser coverage of Maria in Puerto Rico.
“Trump supposedly declared us in a state of emergency, but nothing has been done yet," he said. "We’re barely getting any federal aid. He tweeted a couple times, but how many tweets about football players and Kaepernick and Curry? It's all been about that; it's so frustrating. That is something so inconsequential, while there’s 3.5 million American citizens suffering back in Puerto Rico."
Students at the University have gathered together in various ways to fundraise for Puerto Rico and provide support to the Puerto Rican student population.
Engineering freshman Natalia Sanchez is a Puerto Rican student who began her own initiative. After hearing the devastating news about the hurricane, she began to brainstorm ideas for fundraising, and found one that stuck: selling T-shirts. Her project raised $1,000 in the first four days, and she has gained support from the directors of her living-learning community, the Michigan Community Scholars Program.
“I'm honestly just glad that what I'm doing is having a positive outcome," she said. "I'm pretty sure that you can ask any other Puerto Rican who isn't living in the island right now how they're feeling, and they'll tell you that it's just so distressing. That it just doesn't feel real. That, no matter what, they'll do anything to help."
On a national level, the GoFundMe Students with Puerto Rico has been created, which is bringing together the fundraising efforts of more than 100 universities around the United States, including the University of Michigan. The proceeds are to go directly to Unidos por Puerto Rico, an initiative enacted by Puerto Rico’s first lady, Beatriz Roselló, in collaboration with private companies. It was initially proposed after Hurricane Irma and has expanded after Hurricane Maria’s occurrence.
LSA senior Amanda Santiago has extended family living in Puerto Rico, and has extended family living in Puerto Rico. Though she was able to contact them two days ago, she is still worried for other students’ families.
“A lot of my friends still don’t have family members that they’ve heard from,” she said.
Santiago and LSA junior Yezenia Sandoval are members of student organization Latinx Alliance for Community Action, Support and Advocacy, or La Casa. Yezenia Sandoval is the project coordinator for La Casa, and has highlighted the importance of the alliance in her community during the disaster.
“La Casa has been very supportive — it's a space where you’re with other students of color, and you can talk to each other and check in on each other, especially others in the Puerto Rican and Mexican community,” she said.
Santiago and Sandoval agree that they would like to see more involvement from the administration and the University community, even if they may not be directly affected by these events.
Other student members of La Casa have begun to take their own steps to respond to the needs of Puerto Rico. Rackham student Luz Meza got together with several peers on Monday to sell tamales and horchata in the Ford School of Public Policy to raise funds for Mexico and Puerto Rico relief. They sold out within two hours and raised almost $1,000. They plan to hold another fundraiser on Friday morning, also in the Ford School, selling pan dulce and coffee.
“We intend to send these funds to organizations working with low-income communities. We will split the money equally between Puerto Rico, Central Mexico and the often-neglected southern states of Mexico,” she said.