Zue Webster Alvarez, Nidia Alvarez Hidalgo, Valerie Cadena Rivera, Daniel Merced, Kanisha Jimenez, and Carolina Pons-Martinez—UT students from Puerto Rico—are struggling to focus on their lives here in Knoxville knowing loved ones on the island are dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Webster Alvarez, a fourth-year veterinary medicine student who expects to graduate in June 2018, is from Carolina, just outside San Juan, near the island’s international airport.
After the storm, she got a text from friends saying they had checked on her family.
“All my family is OK, which I am very grateful for,” she said. “I still can’t talk to them. I call their phones every day, hoping they will pick up. I have not talked to my mom or sister since last Tuesday, before Maria made landfall.
“My mom’s house is made of concrete, so it mostly survived the hit,” she said. “She had a wooden front and back porch. Those are gone. I got a text with a picture and it looks like the porch was never there, like it was ripped off.”
Webster Alvarez was visiting her family in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Irma hit.
“When I left to come back to UT, my house still didn’t have electricity,” she said.
Since Maria swept over the island, “it’s getting harder to find everyday supplies. Many stores are closed, and the ones open are limiting how much supplies can be bought. Many stores can’t process payments made with cards, and to take out money from the ATM you have to wait in line for hours and they are limiting how much you can take out at once. There is a mandatory curfew from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m.”
Webster Alvarez aches to see what’s happening on her beloved island.
“I had faculty, classmates, people I barely know—even clients who knew I was from Puerto Rico—ask me about my family,” she said. “The past few weeks have been tougher than usual. It just felt like my mind wasn’t in Knoxville; it was home in Puerto Rico.
“It felt bittersweet to be here, working all day on my lifelong goal of being a vet and then getting home and showering with warm water while back home people were running out of water and gas.”
Alvarez Hidalgo, also a vet med student, was able to talk with her family in Puerto Rico.
“Thankfully, I was able to contact my family right after the storm, with the house phone,” she said. “They let me know they were OK.”
Since her parents’ house phone was working for a while after the storm, they were able to help neighbors communicate with loved ones in the US.
Now, though, their phone service has been lost.
“I have not been able to communicate with them since around Monday morning, which makes me really nervous,” she said.
Alvarez Hidalgo agonizes over news reports about the struggles people are facing—a scarce drinking water, limited gas, long lines for food and supplies.
“Seeing videos and knowing your people are suffering, and you can’t do anything other than donate money, really breaks my heart.”
Merced, a graduate student in electrical engineering, is from Caguas, Puerto Rico.
He said he’s communicated with family and friends in Puerto Rico just enough to know they are OK—and that has allowed him some peace of mind.
“Some of my friends still don’t know about their family members,” he said.
“Most damage I have seen or heard of is because of fallen trees or flying objects, such as broken windows in houses,” he said. “For the most part my family is staying at home, since getting fuel in the car might take at least few hours.
Merced said he, too, has gotten comfort from fellow students.
“They know I am from Puerto Rico and have shown their support by engaging me in conversation or trying to cheer me up,” he said.
Jimenez, a senior in sociology and a member of the women’s volleyball team, is from Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, just outside San Juan.
Jimenez said her family’s home did not suffer major damage; she’s been able to talk to them once via cell phone since the storm.
“My friends, teammates, and coaches have showed a lot of support and I’ve appreciated it,” she said. “Puerto Rico it’s a beautiful place, it means a lot to me. My home—my house, my family—is everything to me, and I love my country.
Cadena Rivera, a third vet med student, has also made contact with her family.
“Thankfully they are well,” she said.
Yet she knows there are people who are in desperate need of supplies and unable to get them. She’s heard of looters and worries about hospitals unable to take care of patients.
“It will take a lot of time for my beautiful Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans to lift up. The good news is Puerto Ricans are one of the most positive, hardworking, and happiest Latins there are.”
Pons-Martinez, a second-year graduate student in music who plays violin in the UT Symphony, was born and raised in Ponce in southern Puerto Rico.
Though most communication lines in the south were down after the storm, her mother was able to use a neighbor’s phone to get word to Pons-Martinez that their house had been spared and they were OK.
It’s been over a week since she’s been able to contact her family directly.
“This was the biggest hurricane coming to PR since 1928, so this generation never lived through a hurricane of that magnitude before,” she said.
Until Thursday, when President Donald Trump temporarily suspended the Jones Act to loosen shipping rules so other nations can ship products in to Puerto Rico, the island—a US territory—was stymied in getting needed help from the outside.
“It is like a really bad nightmare, but the people in Puerto Rico are helping each other—sharing electricity and water, helping to clean the areas,” Pons-Martinez said. “I’d like the campus to know that Puerto Rico is a strong society, that we care a lot about others.
“The diversity we have on this little island is incredible—amazing musicians and artists, scientists, teachers, great food, beaches and mountains.
“We are going to rebuild soon. It is not going to be easy but is going to happen,” she said. “I’m really proud to be a Puerto Rican woman.”