By Gabby Guerard
Smiles, laughter, and hugs filled the Springfield College campus throughout family weekend, as parents and siblings flooded the traditionally small, tight-knit community. However for a handful of students, this weekend was not nearly as lighthearted. Instead of walking to the Union for family bingo night, these students kneeled in prayer and anxiously waited next to their phones, just willing that they would ring. While many had the luxury of spending time with their loved ones, these students were unsure if their families were even still alive.
This was the heartbreaking reality for S.C. students from Puerto Rico, a community of about a dozen or so, as they turned to social media to watch Hurricane Maria tear apart their home on Wednesday, Sept. 20. With wind speeds as high as 155 mph, the category four storm bisected the island from southeast to northwest. Recorded as the fifth strongest hurricane to ever hit the United States, Maria endangered 3.4 million citizens.
To put this into perspective, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research meteorologist Jeff Weber, “It was as if a 50- to 60-mile-wide tornado raged across Puerto Rico, like a buzz saw. It’s almost as strong as a hurricane can get in a direct hit.”
The monstrous storm is responsible for least 16 confirmed deaths, so the Puerto Rican students’ first priority was to see if their family members were safe. That proved to be extremely challenging given that more than 91 percent of cell towers are down, leaving communication scarce both on the island, as well as to the mainland.
“The last time we spoke it was like two or three minutes,” recalls junior Jaydell Torres, who was barely able to get a call through to his mother. “It was not easy, because she called me crying and I thought something bad happened… like I know what happened over there, but she has my brother, my sister, my stepfather, and my grandma.”
Torres felt a great deal of relief knowing that his family members were all safe, but wishes he could help his community, especially given the unique Puerto Rican culture. “Over there in Puerto Rico it’s just different than here in Massachusetts. The culture over there is that everybody is together,” Torres explained. “I’ve only spoken with my family; I did not speak with friends. The people who grew up together, we’re always helping [each other], but then I’m not there so it’s different. It’s so hard.”
Freshman Eli Irizarry Pares has also struggled with being away from his hometown, San Juan, during this difficult time. Although he has received word that all of his family members are safe, Pares explained it hasn’t been easy, stating, “It’s hard going to sleep at night because you don’t know if you’re going to talk to them again.”
Much of the communication has become a matter of waiting by the phone, as the San Juan native added that his grandma and mother were just recently connected for the first time out of pure luck. “Out of nowhere, they saw it [the phone] lit up,” he said. “It had service and they called my mom really fast and told her that they were fine.”
Like Torres, Pares feels a strong responsibility to help and wishes he could do more. “It’s hard knowing that there’s so much that needs to be done and you can’t really do anything about it, other than pray to whoever and whatever you believe in, and just talk to the families every once in a while if you can,” Pares explained.
While Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico from a physical standpoint, it has proved to be nearly just as taxing emotionally and mentally as well. Torres reflects that, “It’s only been a week and for me. It’s like it’s been months, to be honest. I’m not kidding.”
Fortunately for Torres and Pares, the signature Puerto Rican sense of family and community has traveled over 1,600 miles across the Atlantic and is just as present in Springfield as it is on the island. The Puerto Rican students have united as a family and found strength and comfort in relying on each other through a difficult time. While both Torres and Pares confirmed their family members are safe, the status of the other Puerto Rican students’ families remains unclear at this time.
“We’re always together,” explained Pares. “We’re trying to keep each other [up], we’re trying to be there for each other as much as possible. We’re trying to support each other as much as possible. It’s hard.”