Sophomore Andres Cancel’s Family Recovers From the Devastating Hurricane Puerto Rico

Holding+a+tiny+tree+made+from+the+scraps+of+trees+left+from+Hurricane+Maria%2C+sophomore+Andres+Cancel+and+his+mother%2C+Damaris+Nadal+Colon%2C+sit+and+remember+the+tragedy+of+the+traumatic+hurricane.+The+family+healed+from+the+hurricane+and+sent+the+tiny+tee+to+Andres+when+the+tragedy+was+over.
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Sophomore Andres Cancel’s Family Recovers From the Devastating Hurricane Puerto Rico

Holding a tiny tree made from the scraps of trees left from Hurricane Maria, sophomore Andres Cancel and his mother, Damaris Nadal Colon, sit and remember the tragedy of the traumatic hurricane. The family healed from the hurricane and sent the tiny tee to Andres when the tragedy was over.

Holding a tiny tree made from the scraps of trees left from Hurricane Maria, sophomore Andres Cancel and his mother, Damaris Nadal Colon, sit and remember the tragedy of the traumatic hurricane. The family healed from the hurricane and sent the tiny tee to Andres when the tragedy was over.

Francisco Jimenez

Holding a tiny tree made from the scraps of trees left from Hurricane Maria, sophomore Andres Cancel and his mother, Damaris Nadal Colon, sit and remember the tragedy of the traumatic hurricane. The family healed from the hurricane and sent the tiny tee to Andres when the tragedy was over.

Francisco Jimenez

Francisco Jimenez

Holding a tiny tree made from the scraps of trees left from Hurricane Maria, sophomore Andres Cancel and his mother, Damaris Nadal Colon, sit and remember the tragedy of the traumatic hurricane. The family healed from the hurricane and sent the tiny tee to Andres when the tragedy was over.

By Sarah Zimmerman, Francis Howell North High School

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Wind howling outside, Andres Cancel’s grandmother pushes against the pressure on the other side of the door with all her strength.

All she remembers is the water rising. Then she blacked out.

That was all the stress she could handle.

They had enough water for two weeks. Enough food for two weeks. Enough gasoline for five days.

That was all.

They didn’t know they’d be limited on foods they could buy and how much gasoline they could purchase. They didn’t know the Category 5 Hurricane Maria was going to hit so hard.

However, according to sophomore Andres Cancel, Puerto Rico needed a Hurricane Maria. They needed a change, even if the change is still slow-going after a year and a half.

Before Maria

For 12 years of his life, Puerto Rico was where Andres’ grew up. It was where he first learned to read and ride a bike. It was where he explored the forests and watched sunsets on the oceans. It was his home.

“I feel like there’s a variety of people [in Puerto Rico],” Andres said. “We’re always kind of smiling at people, and that’s what I like to see. And since our geography is very different, like our island is small, wherever you go, you can run into beaches… It gives you a different perspective of life, including in the way you view nature. In Puerto Rico, we don’t really have big factories, big businesses or stuff like that. We protect our environment. Most of our island is full of trees and green stuff, so I guess that was part of who I grew up to be.”

While the small size of Puerto Rico allowed Andres to connect with nature, it also harmed the economy, as relatively few jobs were available. Prior to Maria, unemployment was already at a stark 10.4 percent in July of 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which was over twice that of the United States then. Public debt only made things worse. The island was already in a financial hurricane when Maria hit.

The island was not only in debt $74 billion, but they didn’t have enough money to invest in maintaining water pump stations, roads, bridges, levees and the power grid. Just as the government lacked money, so did many citizens. For Andres’ family, saving money meant doing things like their laundry by hand.

“You know those simple things that you do?” Andres said. “Some people pay for it when they have to do it, but we have to do it manually so we don’t spend that much money.”

The financial mess and state of infrastructure in Puerto Rico were just pieces to why so many Puerto Ricans were leaving. This out-migration then left the population 10 percent smaller after just 10 years.

The Hurricane

With Puerto Rico already in a poor financial state, news of a hurricane on the way only exacerbated the situation. Then the hurricane hit in September 2017, and it was devastating. Having moved to the U.S. two months prior for a new job, Andres and his mother were safe; however, the rest of his family was not.

“The hurricane lasted about 24 hours,” Andres’ grandmother

I’m proud to be called a Puerto Rican.”

— Andres Cancel

said. “It was really long. I felt very stressed, insecure and afraid of what would happen. I kind of blacked out.”

Even after the water finished rising in their house, no one could breathe out a sigh of relief. There was a blackout, and the only light available at night was from the moon. Bridges collapsed, debris was everywhere, houses were blown away. Puerto Rico was in ruins.

After the hurricane passed, almost everyone with homes still intact relied on diesel generators, provided they had them. However, those generators could only run for so long. Colon Ortiz only had enough diesel for five days. Those five days passed, and that’s when the lines began.

Someone could be stuck waiting in line for three to four hours for just five gallons of diesel, which was only enough to last one day. When Colon Ortiz wanted to buy a second generator, she and her husband had to wait in front of Costco for three days before they could enter. They had to wait for roads to be cleared by civilians. Meanwhile, others had to wait for water from water trucks run by civilians. Civilians had to step up because help was not coming, not yet.

“One of the biggest difficulties those first three weeks was that Puerto Rico is an island, so everything goes by water,” Colon Ortiz said. “The ports use cranes that get the containers out of boats and whatnot, but since there was no electricity, they didn’t function and so they couldn’t distribute anything. Even if you could distribute, there weren’t any people, like truck drivers, to go pick them up and move them because the roads were blocked by trees and obstacles.”

With blocked roads and a lack of water, many people had to get creative for survival. Andres’ grandparents, for example, resorted to using their pool water for all water necessities except sanitation and hygiene. Many also began to use the environment to their advantage, doing things like filling up buckets of water from the rain.

Although he didn’t have to experience the hurricane in the way his family did, Andres faced his own fears, knowing his loved ones were impacted.

“We didn’t have any communication,” Andres said. “My mom was always paying attention to her phone, in case our family contacted us. It was panic time. We were nervous because we didn’t know what was happening with our family.”

Recovering

Living in the U.S., Andres couldn’t connect with his family in Puerto Rico at first. After a week without direct communication, Andres’ mother finally reached his grandmother and discovered they were okay. After two months, power returned and water services were getting going again for his family.

While basic needs have now been restored, much of Puerto Rico is still facing the ruinous impacts of the hurricane even a year and a half later.

Some people are still living in pitched tents, others still have leaky roofs or trees blocking passage. According to Andres’, one area of Puerto Rico is even still without light due to electrical poles still being down. Even with Federal Emergency Management Agency’s massive efforts to provide food, water and home support with a total of over $3 billion allocated in Public Assistance grants for problems and costs caused by Hurricane Maria, thousands of Puerto Ricans are still in desperate need of help.

“We received certain helps, but we’re still expecting help that they promised us related to electricity from our electric generators and the island overall,” Colon Ortiz said. “We’re also expecting the help that they promised us to help clean the lakes of the Puerto. I understand that they will help us. This is just taking a long time because the other help that they gave us was after months, so we had to survive first on our own.”

The lack of immediate aid, however, did force the country to come together to attain a common goal: survival.

“[The hurricane] brought them together because they had stuff in common,” Andres said. “No one had electricity, no one had anything else to do, so it brought people out of their comfort zones and out to experience other things. Yeah, it’s like a challenge. You couldn’t use your phone there. You didn’t have anything. So it was like, let’s help each other. We can do everything ourselves because we don’t have the necessary resources. It actually did grow our community closer.”

Just as the community in Puerto Rico grew closer, so did Andres’ familiarity in the U.S. He was adapting to speaking almost exclusively English, adjusting to facing more racism and integrating into the new environment. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico was also adapting to the aftereffects of the hurricane.

“Yin and yang, it’s like that,” Andres said. “Puerto Rico is the black and when I moved to United States, it’s the white. It’s basically the opposite because here [in the U.S.] pretty much almost no one speaks Spanish and everyone speaks English, so it was hard language transition.”

Just as Andres is transitioning and learning, Puerto Rico is also learning from the hurricane, discovering how to be better prepared for natural disaster and how important community is.

“Nature is wise that it brought a moment of teaching,” Colon Ortiz said. “After the hurricane, trees didn’t have any leaves, and now when you look at them they’re flowering with leaves and flowers. I took it as a the teaching of how we complicate things when in reality they’re pretty simple. Don’t overthink stuff and when you fall down, when you get hurt, you can stand up again better than before.”

Where They are Now

With the time that has passed, the effort of Puerto Ricans and the help of external aid, Puerto Rico is on its way towards stability once more.

“Puerto Rico still needed a change without Maria being involved,” Andres said. “It needed reformation, and so Maria advanced that. So, now when we get them back on our feet, we are going to have armor and are going to be stronger than we were before. So, I guess [the hurricane] was really bad, but it’s long term after effects are going to [leave Puerto Rico] better than it was before.”

As Puerto Rico works to stand back on its own feet, thousands of problems still await. Many of the houses that weren’t completely demolished still had severe water damage, mold or roof issues. Even 18 months later, some areas of Puerto Rico are still without electricity. Some roads are still damaged. Many people are still without homes.

“I know Puerto Rico is still suffering from the hurricane and that there’s still areas that have been untouched since the hurricane,” teacher Anne Freeman said. “And I know aid from the United States going to Puerto Rico was not always the best aid, and it wasn’t the most timely aid. It’s kind of sad because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.”

As these citizens work to get back to normal life, the U.S., like everyone, can learn from their experiences.

“I feel like people learn more from suffering,” Andres said. “In Puerto Rico, we suffered because of our [lacking] state of light, electricity, water, food, transportation, communication and a lot of stuff. I don’t want anyone to experience that, but [they should] see how people responded, see how people reacted from here to there, see how people here reacted to the people in Puerto Rico and see how the people in Puerto Rico managed the situation and how they were slowly but surely recuperating.”

Meanwhile, as Puerto Rico moves forward, so does Andres with acculturating to the U.S. Having been here for two years now, Andres has found his new home while maintaining his old one. That said, he plans to continue to visit Puerto Rico and eventually live there once more.

“Even though I’m losing the native part of me, I feel like another part is entering my space,” Andres said. “[Besides,] I really truly believe that I am never truly going to get rid of that identity. I am always going to be a Puerto Rican, and I’m proud to be called a Puerto Rican.”

This story was originally published on FHNtoday.com on April 8, 2019.