It was hard for some to keep a dry eye as students from Inter American University of Bayamon, Puerto Rico spoke about the devastating impact Hurricane Maria had on their lives.
The students were visiting Northampton Community College for spring break, in connection with NCC’s International Student Organization recently returning from a service-learning trip to the university in Puerto Rico.
The visiting students, who gathered for a presentation on March 27 in College Center 169, spoke of the fear, loss and isolation they felt, as they watched Maria unfolding outside of their windows. They also spoke of the hope and strength that emerged out of their weather-beaten community.
One student, Robert Peralta, described being alone, away from his home and family, waiting outside of a gas station because he was hungry and had nowhere to go. His school, now ravaged by the storm, had been his home and now felt lost. After nearly 15 hours, a family came by and took him in, giving him a safe place to stay.
“I put a smile on my face even when I am worried, finding the positive, the hope, trying to make humor,” Peralta said.
The students said they lost everything, except for hope.
Another student, Steffanny Mercedes, expressed the fear of being away from her family.
The storm knocked out power and communications. She was alone and had no way of finding out whether her family was safe. It took two weeks to finally connect with her loved ones in the neighboring country of the Dominican Republic. Many parts of Puerto Rico are still struggling with communications.
Six months after the storm, ISO students said they had no Internet or telephone service for a majority of their trip to Puerto Rico. Earlier in March, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai requested $954 million to restore and expand network communications, according to AccuWeather.
A before-and-after Maria video was shown of the once-vibrant Bayamon campus, near the capital of San Juan, which emphasizes aeronautics, engineering and aviation among its many programs.
The video concluded with images of efforts to restore the devastated university. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard were there to assist alongside the students and professors who did everything they could to restore their school.
As the effort to restore continues, NCC has pledged to continue to help.
The students from Puerto Rico were accompanied by the assistant dean of Student Affairs at Inter Americana University of Bayamon, Grace Gomez, who praised her students for their academic achievements as well as their community service and volunteer efforts.
“They have faith in the work they do,” she said. “We cannot let go of the faith. We are a tiny island with big hearts.”
The students from NCC shared their experience from their service trip. When they arrived in Puerto Rico, they were met by Naranjito Mayor Orlando Ortiz and Emergency Management Coordinator Amaury Aguayo-Hiraldo. They learned about Maria’s effect on homes, hospitals, infrastructure and the natural environment.
As the NCC students spoke to search and rescue personnel, they were able to understand the disaster from a deeper level.
“You could see the pain and horror in their eyes,” said ISO member Jennifer Montalvan, recounting Amaury’s depiction of the initial emergency response.
The students learned about the ways the community rallied together to help one another. People banded together to share food and resources.
“It was amazing how they handled their situation, how they rebuild and try to survive,” ISO member Carmen Mileidy Alcantara Tapia said.
Puerto Rico is home to great biological diversity. The ISO students explored the Mata de Platano bat cave, trekked through the rain forest and witnessed the Arecibo Observatory.
“Wow, I’m in a unique place on Earth,” ISO member Lorenzo Gomez said.
The hurricane raged across Puerto Rico six months ago and the island is still in recovery. ISO adviser Mark Orse and his students say they will continue fundraising and bringing awareness to the island’s needs.
“The struggle isn’t over,” he said, praising the students who visited Puerto Rico. “You are the leaders of our future and I am very proud of you.”
The ISO is beginning a new fundraising campaign to collect items desperately needed in hospitals, including toilet paper, paper towels, hand towels, bandages, gauze, ladies and men’s pajamas, adult diapers, bed pads, gloves, liquid antibacterial soap and unscented shampoo. For a full list and more information, contact Mark Orse firstname.lastname@example.org.