In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria, 14 Cornell students worked over winter break in Puerto Rico to help rebuild and clear debris from the island, cleaning four homes by the end of the trip.
Aoife Casey ’19 worked with the Cornell Tradition program and Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción to organize a group of students to aid in rebuilding efforts. The trip was funded by the Cornell Commitment office and the Frank H.T. Rhodes Cornell Tradition Endowment.
“Right after the hurricane, I was devastated from looking at the pictures of the destruction and reading about the effects,” Casey said. “I kept thinking about the fact that the Puerto Rican people were on an island which made it more difficult for them to evacuate both before and after the storm.”
Because resources were unable to reach the island and its residents, the disaster stood out to Casey from other areas impacted by a massive hurricane, she said.
“I wanted to use my platform as a student advisor in the program to make a larger impact [because] I have access to the 500 fellows [part of Cornell Tradition],” Casey said. “I knew that by the time we were on winter break … it would be in its rebuilding phase, [a phase] that hasn’t gotten as much support as the immediate response that followed the storm.”
After getting approval and gauging interest in the trip, Casey worked with MPA director Alejandro Silva ’11 to find specific locations most in need of assistance.
The students worked in various coastal towns directly hit by the storm, including Villa Calma, which was flooded by 16 feet of water, Casey said.
“One house, which belonged to an elderly woman, was coated with debris from the river which we spent hours digging out and then power washing,” Casey said. “Another house fortunately did not have much on the first floor. However, their entire backyard was covered in the debris, including mud [and] objects such as school desks and metal pieces that flowed with the river.”
The volunteers also cleaned a nature reserve that contains caves once inhabited by indigenous Taino people and spent another day at an after-school program for students, Casey said.
The team faced a language barrier during the trip, according to Casey. Only two students were able to communicate with civilians, “while the rest of us needed to be patient and wait for one of [the two students] to translate for us when we had a question,” she said.
“This obstacle made it difficult to get a true understanding of the impact of the storm because it was based on what we saw in the moment and could not be enhanced by asking the homeowners questions about the past,” Casey said.
Physical fatigue was another challenge the group faced, as the work was labor-intensive and the heat made work more difficult, Casey added.
“There were many times I was doing my all to fight back the tears, [but] as a group, we knew we needed to fight our feelings and be as supportive as possible,” she said.
Though the students invested resources and their physical labor, limitations such as time and funding strained the magnitude of their work so they were only able to clean four homes, Kimberly St Fleur ’20 said.
“[What we cleaned] was only four homes in an entire village that was flooded,” Fleur said. “That’s the part that hurts the most — knowing that what we accomplished was not going to fix an entire island.”
Although some students wished they could have done more, Brendan Dodd ’21 praised “the power of resilience” of the Puerto Rican people.
“Even without power or air conditioning or even access to the first floor of their homes due to flooding and mud, people there continued to live their lives as best they could,” he said.