One year ago, Jorge Figueroa was living and working in his native Puerto Rico when island residents heard warnings of an approaching hurricane.
“We never knew the natural disaster it was bringing,” said Figueroa, now a visiting assistant professor of bilingual and ESL education and director of International Education Partnerships for the College of Professional Education at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. “We’ve gone through many hurricanes before, but nothing like this.”
“This” was Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm Sept. 20, 2017, bringing feet of rain and winds of more than 150 mph.
Figueroa had prepared his home in Las Piedras, moving what he could to higher ground and boarding up windows and doors. He then drove 15 miles to the home of his elderly parents in Gurabo and did the same for them.
Soon after, the winds and rain came.
“The hurricane hit and hit and hit,” Figueroa said. “Hours of nonstop impact.”
Some of the protective coverings Figueroa had installed couldn’t withstand the storm’s onslaught. At one point, he said, “something came flying like a missile” and broke through a board covering a second-floor window, forcing the family to evacuate the room. Later, he discovered that the board shielding the front door had broken off and blown away. The doors were about to give way, so Figueroa did the only thing he could: In the middle of the hurricane, he pulled his car against the doors (which opened outward), effectively blocking them from opening.
“Then I ran back inside,” he said.
After the storm
The storm finally ended after 10 hours, Figueroa said.
“We thought the aftermath would be like the other hurricanes, but, no,” he said. “Everything was destroyed.”
After ensuring his parents would be okay, Figueroa headed to Las Piedras to check on his own home. What usually was a 15-minute drive took three hours because the highways were closed. His house was badly damaged, but livable, he said.
Despite the damage left by the hurricane, Figueroa said, “We thought everything would be back to normal in one or two weeks.” That wasn’t the case.
"Days became weeks, weeks became months without electricity or water,” he said. Even today, he added, “You never know when the electricity will go out. You have it one day, then it goes out for three days. It’s the same with water.”
People were unable to return to their jobs, banks were closed and gasoline was in short supply. Figueroa said it took him nine hours to buy gas as rows of cars lined up at stations. The supply was rationed at times, and people were only allowed to buy $20 worth at a time, he said.
Cell phone towers were knocked out, making communication difficult, if not impossible. Figueroa’s wife, Emarely Rosa, is an assistant professor of social work at TWU and was in Denton when the hurricane hit Puerto Rico. Figueroa was unable to contact her for three weeks.
“My wife didn’t know where I was or where her family was,” he said.
When he finally joined her in Denton in late October, Figueroa said he had his first hot shower in four weeks and slept for 12 hours. After a few days, he returned to Puerto Rico to continue teaching at Universidad del Este. He moved to Denton in January and began teaching at TWU.
One year later, Puerto Rico is still trying to recover, Figueroa said.
“A lot of work still has to be done,” he said. The lights are on in San Juan, but “the poor communities have been forgotten.”
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and Puerto Ricans are United States citizens. Figueroa said the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria has been less than that of previous hurricanes, “so people started organizing themselves.”
The disaster also drew people together.
“For the first time, the class system was the same,” Figueroa said. “Rich and poor people were in the same line to get food. Everyone in the barrios brought what they had — beans, rice, whatever — and shared with everyone. Everyone ate together.”
Figueroa said the experience has changed him.
“I appreciate life more,” he said.
Puerto Rico still has a long way to go to recover, Figueroa said, “but our people will not surrender. We are resilient.” He added that “A lot of good people want to help.”
Figueroa’s colleagues in the TWU College of Professional Education are trying to make a difference. A team from the college traveled to Puerto Rico Sept. 19-22 to establish a collaboration with Universidad Metropolitana that includes adopting two public schools in a socioeconomically challenged area. “We’ll be helping those schools — and those communities — any way we can,” Figueroa said.
Story by Karen Garcia
Texas Woman’s University will host two panel discussions on Puerto Rico Oct. 3-4 on the TWU Denton campus. Both events are free and open to the public.
“Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria, One Year Later”
Wednesday, Oct. 3
Arts and Sciences Building (ASB) , room 313
Hear about Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico then and now, as well as ways to help in the recovery.
“Puerto Rico and the United States: It’s Complicated”
Thursday, Oct. 4
Administration Conference Tower (ACT), room 301
Learn about the long, complicated history Puerto Rico has with the United States. Topics will include the impact on Puerto Rico both sociopolitically and financially.
● Jorge Figueroa, Ph.D., visiting associate professor of bilingual and ESL education and director of international education partnerships for the TWU College of Professional Education
● Emarelly Rosa-Davila, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work, TWU
● Manuel Almeida, Ph.D., associate professor of political sciences in the School of Social and Human Studies, Universidad del Este, Puerto Rico
● Jose Rivera, MPA, instructor of social sciences in the School of Social and Human Studies, Universidad del Este, Puerto Rico
These events are sponsored by the TWU College of Professional Education, the TWU Office of Civility and Community Standards and the TWU Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Outreach.