Ongoing struggles in Puerto Rico hit close to home for UConn students

This Friday, Jan. 19, 2018 photo, shows one of multiple properties located in the Esperanza sector that are currently for sale, in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans face losing their homes upon the expiration of a three-month moratorium on mortgage payments that banks offered after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it would be cutting off aid which allowed dozens of families who were impacted by Hurricane Maria to stay at an inn in Hartford.

FEMA had previously promised to extend funding through Feb. 14 but then issued a statement that this extension had been granted “in error,” according to the Hartford Courant. 36 families received notice that they were to vacate their hotels immediately.

“We strongly condemn FEMA’s decision to reverse course and go back on their word, putting multiple families displaced by Hurricane Maria at risk of homelessness in the middle of winter,” a joint statement from Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and Hartford City Councilwoman Wildaliz Bermudez said.

The problems Puerto Rico continues to face in the aftermath of October’s devastating hurricane has personal resonance for some UConn students, such as Ana Usúa Maldonado, the President of the UConn Puerto Rican Student Association, who lives in Puerto Rico when she is not at UConn.

Maldonado said one of her friend’s family member whose house was destroyed in the storm was not given much help from FEMA.

“FEMA wasn’t doing enough efforts to actually go look at the house or to really help,” Maldonado said. “And the process to apply takes months and, you know, people need homes now.”

Maldonado went back to Puerto Rico for winter break and said while much of the damage has been cleaned up, many people were still without power or even water.

“It’s been sad to see how businesses have been set back months from the hurricane,” Maldonado said. “We were starting to make progress, but now it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s start over again.’”

According to a New York Times article published last month, 1.5 million people on the island are still without power and some are not expected to get power back until next spring.

Connecticut Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal travelled to Puerto Rico earlier this month. Murphy tweeted a pure black picture captioned, “It's 6:30 p.m. in the most densely populated neighborhood in San Juan and it's pitch dark. For the 104th day in a row.”

Maldonado lives in Bayamón, which is approximately 30 minutes from San Juan.

Maldonado said she struggled to remain in contact with her family due to the poor cell service on the island.

“The service was horrible,” Maldonado said. “I was lucky I got to at least text or call my mom, but to actually keep a conversation that lasted more than a minute on the phone, it was so difficult.”

Due to the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, students at the University of San Juan will not begin their second semester of the 2017-2018 year until March 12.

“I was going to go to (the University of San Juan), but now I’m able to graduate in four years (and) not be directly taken out from the focus of my academics because I’m not actually living there,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado said she hopes the attention thrust onto Puerto Rico due to the disaster will help start a more productive conversation about Puerto Rico’s status in relation to the United States.

“I hope there’s more (consciousness),” Maldonado said. “All this talk and all these different foundations and events… have (helped) start this conversation ‘cause we need to be treated like the U.S. citizens we are and we have been.”

Maldonado said she is looking to plan a Puerto Rican night with her organization.

“We’re hoping to bring awareness of everything that’s happening but also empower the Puerto Rican community…to continue to focus on what’s important,” Maldonado said. “We still have our culture. We’re still as patriotic as ever and proud.”


Anna Zarra Aldrich is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at anna.aldrich@uconn.edu. She tweets @ZarraAnna.