Chapman Puerto Ricans reflect on hurricane

Puerto Rico was not prepared for category five Hurricane Maria that made landfall Sept. 20 last year, said Arianna Benitez, freshman broadcast journalism and documentary major. Photo courtesy of Arianna Benitez

After not seeing sunlight for more than 12 hours, Arianna Benitez, a freshman broadcast journalism and documentary major, looked out the window of her home and realized that her life would never be the same. Her beloved city of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, was permanently changed by Hurricane Maria in 2017. She and everyone else on the island had to completely alter their lifestyle.

“You are pushed to your limits constantly,” Benitez said. “Every minute of every day you battle between keeping ahold of your own identity and becoming this violent, savage version of yourself because you don’t have food, water, electricity, education or communication.”

Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane, made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017. In December, the Puerto Rican government estimated that the death toll resulting from the hurricane was 64. Now, more than a year later, Hurricane Maria’s death toll is 2,975, a George Washington University study found.

Puerto Rico was not prepared for Hurricane Maria, Benitez said. Although she and her family stocked up her home with canned food and bottled water, the Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, did not accurately warn Puerto Ricans the magnitude of the category five hurricane, Benitez said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), formed in 1979, was created to help people before, during and after disasters in the United States. FEMA had its own crisis in fall 2017 with Hurricane Irma and the Southern California wildfires, and supplies were sent to the Virgin Islands, leaving Puerto Rico’s warehouses empty, according to the New York Times.

“FEMA was a joke,” Benitez said. “I had $10,000 worth of damages to my house. We requested that FEMA give us $5,000. Our request was denied.”

FEMA as either denied or not answered 79 percent of appeals for aid, according to NBC News.

Benitez was without power for five months, she said. She said she couldn’t use her phone, computer, television, or access the internet. The hurricane destroyed security cameras, so crime increased, with people stealing mail, generators and gasoline, she said.

“I saw things that I never thought would happen in a place that was part of the U.S.,” Benitez said. “I saw something you would see in third-world countries. That’s what it felt like.”

The lack of power made it difficult to complete basic tasks, Benitez said. She couldn’t shower because the water was contaminated, she couldn’t drive because the streets were covered in debris and she couldn’t even go out to her backyard because the fallen lamp posts made it dangerous, she said.

“We got a generator around month two or three,” Benitez said. “That’s when I started to regain my sense of being a human being. I could see the news, take a hot shower and cook an actual meal.”

Benitez’s old high school, Academia Maria Reina, was one of the first schools to reopen, she said, with students going back to school three weeks after the hurricane hit. But the island still didn’t have electricity, so teachers had to open the windows to let more sunlight in the classrooms, she said.

“The sun goes down (early),” Benitez said. “Your entire day ends at 6 p.m. because there’s just no light.”

Now, more than two hundred public schools have been closed, said Anaida Colon-Muniz, a Chapman professor in the Attallah College of Educational Studies. Muniz, who was born in Puerto Rico, said she has been closely involved with the relief efforts through her affiliation with the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women of Southern California.

“Schools in Puerto Rico were in dire shape even before the hurricane,” Muniz said. “Now, under the guise of reform, the decisions being made by Puerto Rico’s secretary of education and governor have sent the entire system into disarray.”

While some schools lost materials and roofs, others were in good shape, but were still closed, Muniz said. These schools will be auctioned off, likely to charter organizations and private schools, she said.

“There are regular protests by students, parents and teachers,” Dr. Muniz said. “Some have led to reopening of schools, while others were closed, leaving vulnerable populations of children with special needs and those in remote locations at the mercy of their families’ own limited resources.”