Many Puerto Rican residents have relocated to Connecticut since Hurricane Maria struck the island on Sept. 20, 2017. The University of Hartford is making half-tuition scholarships available to college or university students who have relocated. Any undergraduate student who was enrolled at an accredited college or university in Puerto Rico for the Fall 2017 term will receive an application fee waiver and expedited admission decision. If academically admissible, these students will receive a scholarship equivalent to half of the University’s tuition cost for the Spring 2018 semester that begins on Jan. 23.
“The University welcomes inquiries from students who were displaced from their homes as a result of Hurricanes Irma or Maria,” says Victoria Hampton, director of financial aid and acting dean of enrollment management at the University. “In the face of these devastating natural disasters, it’s important that we help and support young people who were pursuing their higher education dreams, so they continue and eventually create a better future for themselves and for Puerto Rico.”
Interested students should contact University of Hartford Dean of Admission Rick Zeiser at Zeiser@hartford.edu.
University of Hartford student Nina Vázquez ’19 made a trip to Puerto Rico this fall under the worst circumstances possible. Her grandfather had died. He had no electricity to operate his medical apparatus and no clean water for weeks after Hurricane Maria and he died from those conditions. Until her family moved to Meriden, Conn., when she was 13 years old, Nina lived in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, on the west coast of the island, more than two hours from San Juan. The family returned for the funeral.
Three months after the hurrican struck the island, Nina recounted what she and her family experienced during a panel discussion titled “Puerto Rico in Crisis: Humanitarianism, Diaspora, and Colonialism” The panelists also included Bianca Gonzalez-Lesser, a University Jackie McLean Fellow who teaches in the Hillyer College Department of Social Sciences, and Luis Beltran-Alvarez, a PhD candidate in political science student at UConn. Their presentations focused on the role and rights of citizenship.
“While grieving the death of my grandfather,” she said, “I experienced for two weeks what many Puerto Ricans have experienced for three months. It is pure survival mode,” says the junior who is pursuing a double major in political science and criminal justice with an emphasis on race and ethnic issues.
On the day Nina and her family landed at the airport on the west side of the island, the electricity and communication system had failed and there were no generators—there was total darkness inside the terminal. There was no automated way to deliver the luggage, so airport personnel read the luggage tags by flashlight. The process took two hours inside a sweltering hot terminal. Once outside, they got their first glimpse of the homes, businesses, trees, and other property that were ravaged by the hurricane winds and water. “It was total devastation,” Nina says, “Trees looked like broken pencils and there was rubble everywhere. I had told myself it wouldn’t be that bad, but it was that bad.”
Her family had no way to communicate with local family or friends to let them know that they were at the airport. A man, who said he had not yet been able to let his family in the United States know he was alive, drove the family to a rental car facility. They were fortunate that a U.S. government staffer returned a car while they were there; otherwise there were no cars to be found.
Once they arrived in Aguadilla, Nina and her family met with an overwhelmed staff at the morgue who told them her grandfather had to be buried that day. “No, no, we told them,” says Nina. “We have just arrived and we haven’t been able to tell everyone or make preparations.” But she says the morgue staff said they couldn’t keep putting burials off. “They said there were so many people lost in the days and weeks after the hurricane that they couldn’t continue to keep them all. They agreed to give us one more day, it was very frustrating.”
Nina found the circumstances for the living equally, if not more, frustrating. Acquiring food and water was a daylong job. She saw a government water tanker truck on her first day there. People were running to it with buckets and anything else they could bring to carry water. The truck was supposed to come every day according to the men onboard, but in the two weeks Nina was there, she never saw the truck come again.
Stores were letting three to 10 people in at a time, which created long lines. Once you got inside, even if there was fresh food, most people didn’t buy it. “My cousin explained that you couldn’t be sure that the fresh food was any good because of the lack of electricity in the store, and if you brought it home, you had no way to store it without electricity. So they were only eating canned goods. And most people were eating only once a day.”
Nina experienced many adventures seeking water. Once she was carrying a case to checkout when an elderly woman approached and offered her $40 for the case. The woman said she needed water for her grandchildren. Nina felt terrible telling the woman that she couldn’t give her the water because her family also needed it. As it turned out, neither got water there that day because the ATM failed and everyone was cleared out of the store.
On another day, Nina and her cousin stood in line for food and water for hours and noticed that although they were supposed to receive a full case of water, the workers were cutting the cases in half. Because the water sat in the hot sun so long, it made some people sick so Nina’s family decided it could only be used for washing dishes and clothes. The military-issued food that was handed out included salt water in which the food should be cooked but the instructions were in English so some people ate it raw or prepared it incorrectly, which made it toxic, Nina says.
“One day my father and I were just driving around and saw a water truck,” Nina recalls. People were again running to the truck with buckets, and we did too. I never thought I’d see people running to get water in the United States.”
Cancelled flights and other issues caused the Vázquez family to be in Puerto Rico more than two weeks rather than the one week they had planned. “We lived with no light, no water, and the conditions of post-hurricane Puerto Rico. There is truly a humanitarian crisis there that needs continued attention.”