Students respond to devastation from hurricanes

Several students are using websites like GoFundMe to raise money for their families in Puerto Rico.

Elisa Torres’ cousin Angel Onel Colon lost his entire home, pictured above, to hurricanes in Orocovis, Puerto Rico. | COURTESY / OSCAR TORRES

About two months ago, palm trees used to line the driveway of Amanda Figueroa-Diaz’s family’s home in Lares, Puerto Rico.

Today, they no longer stand.

“Everyone says the same thing, ‘You can’t recognize Puerto Rico,’” said Figueroa-Diaz, a senior political science major and president of TU Experience Puerto Rico.

TU Experience Puerto Rico is one of several campus organizations and students raising money to support rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria in September. More than 80 percent of residents remain without power, and many face food and water shortages.

Two other student organizations — Strong Men Overcoming Obstacles Through Hard Work and Temple’s chapter of the Association of Latino Professionals For America — organized drives to collect nonperishable food items, clothing and toiletries, said Chris Carey, the senior director of student services.

For some students, the hurricanes directly affected their homes and families on the island.

Figueroa-Diaz’s immediate family lives in Lares, but she also has an aunt that lives in Toa Alta. Figueroa-Diaz was born in Philadelphia, after her family came here to receive treatment for her ill grandparent. Her mother stayed in Philadelphia, but the rest of her family currently lives in Puerto Rico.

In both Lares and Toa Alta, they have no electricity or running water. Her relatives in Tao Alta have it the hardest, she said, where a river flooded over the roads. Every Sunday, a family member travels to San Juan, the capitol city, to find a hotspot so they can make a call to Figueroa-Diaz in the United States.

To help alleviate these struggles, TU Experience Puerto Rico established a GoFundMe to raise money for “Unidos Por Puerto Rico,” a fundraising initiative created by the First Lady of Puerto Rico Beatriz Rosselló to provide aid to individuals who were affected by the hurricanes.   

TU Experience Puerto Rico has raised $230 so far through its GoFundMe, $24,770 short of the $25,000 goal listed on the page. The group started the fundraiser on Oct. 11, eight days after Hurricane Maria ended.

“Everyone said we’re crazy, we might be crazy, but I don’t know,” Figueroa-Diaz said. “I am not going to get upset. No one’s going to get upset if it’s not $25,000. It’s the idea that counts.”

Elisa Torres’ Great Aunt Hilda Colon had to throw away her bed and dresser because they were covered in mold due to flooding from Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico. | COURTESY / OSCAR TORRES

Starting next week, the organization plans to reach out to larger businesses around the city, like Comcast, in hopes they will donate to the cause.

In addition to its GoFundMe, TU Experience Puerto Rico sold “pastelillo con carne y queso” — a fried dough turnover with meat and cheese — a few weeks ago in front of the Qdoba at Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. After selling 40 pastelillos at the first event, Figueroa-Diaz said the group plans to cook 200 more to sell at its next fundraiser.

But more than just raising money, Figueroa-Diaz said it’s important to maintain the identity of the island. For her, the Puerto Rican identity is defined by the “traditions on the island and the sense of family, and the liveliness of Puerto Ricans.”

“All the money in the world is one thing, because Puerto Rico is in debt…but it’s important to keep the spirit alive too,” Figueroa-Diaz said.

A major obstacle in distributing resources, Figueroa-Diaz said, is that few supplies are making it outside San Juan and into rural areas where people are most in need, including some of her relatives.

“Giving clothes and first necessity items are good, but we all know the situation,” Figueroa-Diaz said. “It’s being shipped, and what’s happening? It’s not being given out honestly. Because a lot of the roads are destroyed and federal aid from the United States, I’d say, is pretty embarrassing.”

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the Senate approved a $36.5 billion aid package for hurricane and wildfire relief, and would also help Puerto Rico’s government avoid running out of funds. This aid comes on top of a $15.3 billion natural disaster package that was approved in September. President Donald Trump has been criticized for his slow and sometimes unsympathetic response to the devastation in Puerto Rico and tweeting insults about the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz.

“You can’t romanticize Puerto Rico anymore,” Figueroa-Diaz said. “And now it’s blatant the way the president was throwing paper towels at people like he was raffling out some candy. And they had to swallow it because they need these things.”

Elisa Torres, a sophomore art education major, also began raising money with a GoFundMe to help her family and others in Puerto Rico. Her grandparents and other extended family members currently live in the mountainous Orocovis municipality in the center of the island.

She was inspired after seeing her cousin raise more than $13,000 from his GoFundMe account, so she and her immediate family decided to start their own GoFundMe, which raised $2,920. Additionally, she said her family raised $8,000 from other family members, friends and colleagues to send to Orocovis.

“People have been crazy generous,” Torres said. “But it’s also like the amount of need is insane. It’s insane down there.”

Torres said her grandparents’ house is at risk of falling off a mountainside because of the flood damage, which forced them to leave and stay with Torres’ great-aunt. But even there, Torres said flooding left her great aunt’s house covered in mold, forcing her relatives to give up their belongings.

With the money raised from the GoFundMe, Torres said her family was able to give supplies to 24 different families. They donated cleaning supplies, water, gas, an oxygen tank and nonperishable foods like peanut butter and tuna. The supplies were all brought by Torres’ father, who traveled to Puerto Rico two weeks ago.

“When my dad went, the lack of resources was unreal,” Torres said. “So I’m honestly not sure how people are managing.”

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