Recovery efforts led by students and faculty continue as Puerto Rican students stuck on island return

Sophomore student, Natalia Cañellas, fled to Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Irma's destructive threat to Miami. Cañellas found herself stranded in Puerto Rico until Sept. 26, when she found a flight back to Miami through the the help of her father's friend and his private airplane. Photo credit: Maria Esquinca
Sophomore student, Natalia Cañellas, fled to Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Irma’s destructive threat to Miami. Cañellas found herself stranded in Puerto Rico until Sept. 26, when she found a flight back to Miami through the the help of her father’s friend and his private airplane. Photo credit: Maria Esquinca


Hurricane Maria barreled through Puerto Rico nearly two weeks ago, leaving millions without power and basic necessities such as clean water. Some University of Miami students witnessed the disaster first-hand after fleeing from Hurricane Irma, only to become stuck on the island.

Sophomore Natalia Cañellas, a Puerto Rican native, returned to her country when Hurricane Irma was predicted to hit Miami directly. The damage sustained in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Irma was minimal compared to what it would suffer from Hurricane Maria the following week. With classes canceled until Sept. 25, Cañellas said she decided to stay in Puerto Rico. When Maria became a major threat to the island, Cañellas said all flights out were canceled. She went from hurricane evacuee to survivor.

“After the hurricane, Puerto Rico isn’t really Puerto Rico anymore – it’s devastated,” said Cañellas, a nursing student. “There are trees everywhere, there’s no power, there’s barely any phone signal or any clean water to drink.”

Hurricane Maria plowed through the island Sept. 20 with wind speeds of 155 mph. More than 95 percent of the island lost power. Cañellas’ house had a generator, but she and her family still had no form of communication.

For Cañellas, being stuck in her country without phone service was better than being away from the disaster.

“I am kind of happy that I spent the hurricane there because I was with my family,” she said. “I didn’t have the problem of not being able to call them.”

With hundreds of flights to and from San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport canceled in the aftermath of the hurricane, Puerto Ricans, including Cañellas, were desperate to find a way out. On Sept. 26, more than a week after classes resumed, Cañellas returned to Miami with the help of her father’s friend and his private airplane.

Though Cañellas is safe in Miami with food, clean water and electricity, she said her return has been difficult.

“I feel horrible,” she said. “I don’t want to be back in Miami. I just want to be in Puerto Rico with my friends, my people. But I can’t really do much back there. I won’t want to take the little resources that are left.”

There are a total of 71 students from Puerto Rico including undergraduate, graduate, law and medical students, said Jennifer Rau, UM’s director of divisional initiatives and university ombudsperson.

During the aftermath of the storm, the university worked with 18 students stuck in Puerto Rico to try to find them a way out.

Felicia Knaul, UM’s first lady, director of the University’s Institute for Advanced Study for the Americas and professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Miller School of Medicine, initially reached out to Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Whitely about bringing remaining UM students back on a Caribbean cruise ship delivering supplies to those in affected areas. The university was able to contact two students and add them to the passenger list.

The ship is expected to arrive at Port Everglades Oct. 3 with both students and one student’s siblings onboard.

Other students who remained on the island were able to find their own way back to the United States, including senior Christian Lausell. He returned to Miami on a commercial airplane. Lausell declined to comment on his experience in Puerto Rico.

Since news of the hurricane hit the airwaves in the United States, Puerto Ricans across the country have started initiatives and recovery efforts to aid those affected. Rafael Méndez, a junior majoring in marketing, is involved with “Students with Puerto Rico,” a collective GoFundMe initiative put together by students from colleges and universities across the nation. Since its creation Sept. 20, the page has raised more than $160,000, surpassing its current $150,000 goal.

Though his family back in Puerto Rico has sent positive updates, such as power restorations and the restocking of supermarket shelves, Méndez said there is still more that could be done.

President Donald Trump and his administration have come under recent scrutiny for delayed recovery responses by San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Trump responded with a series of tweets attacking the mayor’s “leadership” for the island’s lack of improvement in the storm’s aftermath.

For Méndez, the recovery responses made by the U.S. government have done little to improve the situation that has become a humanitarian crisis.

“I don’t think he understands how serious the situation is,” Méndez said. “Puerto Ricans all over the country are doing what they can to help while the government has been stagnant. It has caused the whole crisis.”

Students aren’t the only ones taking matters into their own hands when it comes to helping those affected in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. A letter and petition has been circulating among faculty and staff asking the university to accommodate displaced Caribbean students and faculty.

The letter, addressed to President Julio Frenk and members of the UM Board of Trustees, asks the administration to accommodate students from the region in the university’s classrooms and housing for the duration of the semester or academic calendar year at no cost to the students. The petition also asks for displaced faculty to be “provided with office and laboratory space, and library access.”

The petition has over 200 electronic signatures from members of the university’s faculty and staff.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott asked colleges and universities to offer in-state tuition for Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria. Some Florida schools, including Miami Dade College and Broward College, already offer Puerto Rican students significant discounts. Whitely said UM is looking into providing similar opportunities and will be meeting this week with the Faculty Senate to discuss possibilities.

William Pestle, associate professor in the department of anthology, created the petition. After conducting research in Puerto Rico for 15 years, Pestle said he has grown to love the island and felt a duty to help “our Puerto Rican students, colleagues and fellow American citizens.”

He said he drafted the letter after realizing that he can’t restore power to the country or produce clean water for them to drink, but he can teach students.

“That’s what we’re good at,” said Pestle, who is married to a Puerto Rican.

Pestle will be flying to Puerto Rico Oct. 5 “with as many supplies as the airline will let me” to aid those in need. However, before he leaves to assist in recovery effort, he said he will present the letter to the administration Oct. 4.

He said he trusts the administration will come up with the right solutions to provide displaced students with opportunities to overcome the hurdles the hurricane placed in their lives.

“I am hopeful the administration will see fit to match that commitment,” he said. “While the faculty can teach students … there needs to be leadership at the top propelling that forward – the faculty can’t do that by themselves.”

Correction, Oct. 3, 2017: A previous version of this article stated that classes after Hurricane Irma resumed on Sept. 20. The correct date is Sept. 25. The article has been updated to reflect this information.