Members of KU Puerto Rican community still despair more than 2 months after Hurricane Maria

From left, KU business professor Bob Augelli, KU Spanish and Portuguese professor Santa Arias and KU graduate student Bryan Rodriguez-Colon all have family members who were impacted when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September.

When Bryan Rodriguez-Colon arrived last summer in Lawrence to begin work on his master’s degree in geology, he knew he would have a challenging fall semester.

“It’s my first time in the states,” he said. “I still have difficulties with English. I’ve never seen seasons change or snow. As a normal student dealing with the process of cultural adaptation, it’s difficult. When you mix in the hurricane, it’s been very difficult for me.”

The unexpected stress to Rodriguez-Colon’s semester arrived on Sept. 20 when Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, decimating most of the island, a U.S. territory. According to the National Weather Service, the category 4 hurricane packed 155 mph winds and dumped as much as 30 inches of rain on parts of the island in 24 hours.

Rodriguez-Colon attempted to carry on his graduate studies without knowing for seven days what had happened to his father. His father lives in Manati on Puerto Rico’s northern coast about 20 miles west of the island’s capital of San Juan.

“I knew in my mind he was OK, but still it was frustrating during those days not knowing and not being able to make calls,” he said. “I would go back to my apartment and look at Facebook to see things about the hurricane. It was horrifying to see my hometown and people suffering like that.”

University of Kansas master's student and graduate teaching assistant in the geology department, Bryan Rodriguez-Colon. Rodriguez-Colon is pictured outside Lindley Hall on the KU campus on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017.

Rodriguez-Colon would eventually learn that his father had escaped the worst of the storm. Although without power and water for a month, Manati escaped most of the flooding that ravaged so much of the island.

The sense of hopelessness Rodriguez-Colon felt as the hurricane struck the Caribbean island of 3.5 million people was shared by others with close ties to Puerto Rico. KU business professor Bob Augelli said he remembers watching the Weather Channel as the eye of the hurricane traversed the whole of Puerto Rico from east to west.

“I just sat there crying because I knew what was happening on the island and there was nothing you could do,” he said.

Like Rodriguez-Colon, Augelli and fellow KU professor Santa Arias, who works in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, waited days to learn the fate of their families in Puerto Rico.

Arias’ mother, brother and sister lived in the hardest-hit southeast part of the island where the eye of the hurricane made landfall, she said. She was in the dark about her family’s well-being for an extended period after the storm and didn’t hear from her brother until the first week of November.

Bob Augelli, a lecturer in the School of Business and program director for the multicultural business scholars program. Augelli is pictured outside Capitol Federal Hall on the KU campus on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017.

“For the first weeks when I didn’t know anything, I was just crying every night,” she said. “My job keeps me busy enough, but in the evening, when I got home, it was overwhelming. One of my nieces has three babies, and she was in the area hardest hit. We didn’t know what was going on.”

Arias said she did hear from a cousin from a San Juan suburb whom she had urged to leave her home as the hurricane was approaching.

“She said she had seen many hurricanes and she was not leaving her house because nothing was going to happen,” she said. “She had at least two feet of flooding in her home. She got out of her home in a kayak with pets.”

Augelli said his immediate concern in Maria’s wake was the well-being of his more than 40 cousins who live mostly in the San Juan area.

Augelli moved from Puerto Rico with his parents when he was 3 months old but maintained close ties to the island. He spent his childhood summers on Puerto Rico and lived there during a two-year break between completing his master’s degree and starting work on his doctorate.

Santa Arias, chair of the KU department of Spanish and Portuguese, has been busy this semester helping family members relocate to the states from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

He intends to visit Puerto Rico when the current KU semester ends.

He has heard from most of his cousins, Augelli said. But he said it was still difficult to get more than “drips and drabs” of information about Puerto Rico’s status, he said.

From the strands of information available, it appears that about 50 percent of the island now has power as the electrical grid is gradually being restored, Augelli said. However, the grid remains fragile, and local and islandwide blackouts are common, he said.

Progress has also been made in restoring running water, Augelli said.

“Ninety percent of the water service has been restored,” he said. “The problem is it’s still under a boil order. When you don’t have electricity, that’s a real problem.”

Rodriguez-Colon said that father was dealing with the same problems. He has electricity, but outages are frequent. Water is even more problematic.

“Right now, two months after the hurricane, they’re still having problems with water,” he said. “It’s not only my family.”

Arias’ concerns extend beyond her family to the schools she attended and the welfare of residents in the mountain communities of the island’s interior, she said. She worries about the care of those in hospitals and nursing homes.

“This has been the worst semester for me,” she said. “I have cried so much, because I love that island. It was the best place to live.”

The beloved island is no longer the home of her mother, her nephew, her sister and her niece’s family. Arias said that she helped all of them move to Chicago, where another sister lives.

“I don’t think they will be going back,” she said.

Her brother remains in Puerto Rico to care for his farm, Arias said.

“In terms of my immediate family, I feel better,” she said. “I have a way of communicating with my brother through someone else. When I talked to him once, he said they have made a sort of small town where they go and get water. He said, ‘Today we go get water.’ FEMA doesn’t reach that part of the island. Forget about working. There’s no place to work. There’s no school where he’s at.”

Her family’s move from Puerto Rico and the mass exodus she expects in Maria’s wake are of special concern to Arias.

“I study colonial Latin America,” she said. “I’ve been looking at census and migration records and how Puerto Rico has suffered the massive migration of people leaving the island. When you look at the records, there’s been emigration before. We’re talking about an island being depopulated. When you talk about economic development, you need people to invest, work and consume. It’s really sad.”

Already 170,000 Puerto Ricans have left for the continental U.S. since the hurricane, Augelli said. That could be devastating as Puerto Rico attempts to recover from the hurricane. Manufacturing is the most important sector of the economy, accounting for about half the island’s gross domestic product, he said. The island’s economy could be crippled in the long term by its dwindling workforce, he said.

Tourism, which accounts for a significant portion of the economy, has also been hard hit. Old San Juan, a popular tourist destination, was closed down from the storm, and many longstanding and popular businesses have been forced to close, Augelli said.

What disappoints Arias, Augelli and Rodriguez-Colon is what they consider the U.S. government’s tepid response to the hurricane and the continuing crisis on the island. Fellow Americans on the mainland need to realize the depth of the devastation, the deprivations that continue and the necessity of aid to rebuild the island, Arias said.

“I really hate it when people ask me if everything is fine,” she said. “Being in Kansas, I really get offended by that question. Nobody is fine, even people who have prosperous businesses and great careers. Nobody is fine.”

The Trump administration suspended for 10 days the Jones Act, which limits shipping between American ports to vessels that are U.S. built, owned and operated. A much longer suspension is needed on the island, which is now dependent on mainland supplies for the basics of survival and the task of rebuilding, Augelli said.

FEMA and military units have been in Puerto Rico and helping, but Arias and Augelli said the efforts on the island were overshadowed by the federal government’s response to the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida. Donations from the American public have been invaluable, they said, but even that effort could use the coordination of the federal government to ensure supplies get to where they are needed.

“This is an unprecedented disaster,” Augelli said. “It requires a response of a superpower like the United States.”