On Their Own

Albert Zhao

As she watched the news of Hurricane Maria sweeping through Puerto Rico, Beth Colon-Pizzini kept her phone close, waiting to hear from her family. She described it as the longest 48 hours of her life.

When her father finally called, he told her food and gas were becoming scarce and urged her to send battery-powered fans because the air-conditioning had stopped working—like the rest of the island’s electrical grid.

“It was a semi-apocalyptic setting they had to go through,” said Colon-Pizzini.

Colon-Pizzini, an African Diaspora Studies Ph.D student, is one UT’s numerous Puerto Rican students and faculty who are coping with the lack of utilities and severe disruption of life that their friends and families face in the aftermath of Maria.

Seven Puerto Rican professors sent a letter to President Fenves, asking the University to offer resources for the island’s college students and faculty. Puerto Rico’s universities have been largely closed due to damages from the hurricane.

The letter suggested tuition waivers, research fee waivers, access to UT’s library system, emergency housing and semester residencies for affected students and faculty.

A month later, Fenves wrote back and offered condolences, but said the University was not in a position to meet their requests.

“As a fellow American and as a member of the UT family, I share in the heartbreak of the humanitarian crisis,” Fenves wrote. The letter’s suggestions were determined to be “ineffectual either because of the semester’s lateness, state laws or “UT’s contractual obligations.”

The response has drawn criticism from both Puerto Rican faculty and students.

“It was disappointing,” said Carlos Ramos Scharrón, a geography professor whose agricultural research in Puerto Rico has been stalled by the hurricane. He maintains frequent contact with University of Puerto Rico faculty and students. “I think we have seen UT respond better to events like this in the past, especially Katrina.”

J.B. Bird, director of UT media relations, said in an interview that UT did accept a small number of students from Tulane University after Katrina struck in 2005.

While there are no plans to take in students from the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Virgin Islands, Bird said students affected by Maria are welcomed to reach out to the University and request accommodations.

Colon-Pizzini said UT could have been more proactive in its response to Maria, especially because she didn’t receive a university email acknowledging Maria, whereas she did for Hurricane Harvey after it hit Texas.

“I just feel that at this moment they’re washing their hands of it instead of aiding an academic community in need,” Colon-Pizzini said.

Texas is the third highest state to receive Puerto Ricans post-Maria, according to migration estimates by City University of New York. In seven out of the ten states projected to receive the most Puerto Ricans, one or more public universities have offered to receive some students or provide tuition assistance. Texas is not among those seven.

“I think institutions such as UT have many resources to provide many kinds of help to people in situations of need,” said history professor Alberto Martinez, who visited Puerto Rico last month to survey the hurricane’s impact on his friends and family.

Since UT rejected the suggestions made in the faculty’s letter, Martinez said the University should offer its list of feasible alternatives because Puerto Rico is a deepening crisis.

“We would hope that if our university would not accept the suggestions that we propose, which are frankly analogous to things being done by other universities, they would propose alternate suggestions, Martinez said. “That has not happened yet.”

After experiencing the ravages of Hurricane Irma, Victoria Fernos, an international studies senior from the University of Puerto Rico, fled to Austin a day before Maria made landfall. Her mom teaches math at LBJ high school.

Expecting to only stay for a few days, Fernos later realized the hurricane made it impossible for her to return and finish classes because major roads to her home were blocked by fallen trees.

Currently working for a local law office to pay for her living expenses, Fernos had hoped UT would facilitate her classes if she applied.

“So many universities have been helping, so I was expecting something,” Fernos. “I eventually do have to go back, but I don’t want to live in conditions where the food is scarce. The supermarket lines are incredibly long for food, for gas, for water, for ice. Everything is very scarce.”

Fernos said her family tells her not to come back until Spring of next year because power outages continue to occur, and they fear the pollution from people’s diesel generators could harm her lungs.

The majority of Puerto Ricans still don’t have electricity, which has closed businesses, schools and deprived many residents of running water since pumping stations require power. Although the island is at 49 percent electrical capacity, transmission lines frequently give out and many are still in need of repair, according to The New York Times.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty for when services will be back on,” said literature professor Cesar Salgado. “(Puerto Rican officials) speak about being in limbo. They speak about being back decades.”

Salgado said his parents fortunately left Puerto Rico right before Maria hit and currently live in Dallas with his brother. His wife’s parents, who are diabetics, moved into his house because they required medical support that the hurricane disrupted.

Some are less fortunate and cannot bring their family over. With a tumor and an injured back, anthropology graduate student Lara Sanchez’s father waited for weeks in 8 hour lines to buy gas to fuel his car and power his home’s generator in Puerto Rico.

Sanchez said her father and the rest of her family still don’t have water and electricity.

“He’s in pain constantly,” Sanchez said. “They’re uncomfortable, but they have access to food and all their basic necessities.”

Although disheartened, Martinez said he and other faculty will continue to search for ways to help their homeland.

“Can we turn this tragedy into something positive?” Martinez said. “I know people who daily drink rainwater. I know people who stand in line 8 to 10 hours for gas.”

Despite the island’s problems, Martinez and his colleagues say the least the University can do is help the educational mission of displaced students.

“The university infrastructure was just as impacted and had been just as devastated as the rest of the island.”