Aura Cruz Heredia could not get in contact with her family in Puerto Rico for about a week after a hurricane struck the island last month.
Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane that passed through Puerto Rico in September, caused mass destruction and wiped out the island’s electricity. More than 30 people have died and many of the 3 million residents on the island have been left without cell service, water and electricity.
Students at UCLA have been helping organize relief efforts for Puerto Rico, a United States territory, following the hurricane.
Heredia is a UCLA representative for Students with Puerto Rico, which has raised almost $150,000 for relief efforts in Puerto Rico. She said the group, which now has representatives from 120 college campuses nationally, started after six Puerto Rican students studying at institutions including the University of Pennsylvania, American University and Fordham College at Lincoln Center created a GoFundMe page. The money raised will be donated to Unidos por Puerto Rico, which raises funds to help those affected by Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma.
“It became an effort from all over,” Heredia said. “Each school picked a representative and started doing outreach at our personal schools.”
Heredia said many people in Puerto Rico are now relying on generators because the hurricane knocked out electricity on the island. However, she added many are now running out of generator fuel.
“My brother was in line for four hours to get a tank of gas in his car,” she said. “Local reports have been saying that there’s violence at (gas lines) because people (are) getting desperate.”
Beatriz Martinez-Godas, Students with Puerto Rico’s national spokesperson, said the Jones Act, a U.S. federal law, restricts assistance to Puerto Rico by requiring all goods shipped between U.S. ports to be transported by American vessels. Martinez-Godas added it took the U.S. federal government more than eight days to temporarily suspend the Jones Act following the hurricane.
“We had to fight and beg for something that was granted immediately to the states of Texas and Florida after the hurricanes that passed through them,” she said.
Ariana Valle, a UCLA graduate student in sociology, said she helped compile a list of organizations that are helping with relief efforts in Puerto Rico to let individuals know which groups they can donate to. The list is on the UCLA Latin American Institute’s website.
Valle added the list includes both relief organizations that are responding to the hurricane and local nonprofits that help address long-term economic poverty in Puerto Rico.
“Puerto Rico and people living there are already in a difficult economic situation because of the economic and fiscal crisis,” she said. “(The hurricane) adds a whole other set of obstacles and difficulties to a place and people that were already in a difficult economic and social situation.”
Heredia said the storm has severely affected everyday life in Puerto Rico.
“A lot of my friends in college (in Puerto Rico) haven’t been to college in the past month and a half, so plans are delayed,” she said. “When can you continue with life if school is closed and if people aren’t working?”
Cesar Ayala, a UCLA professor of sociology, said he thinks Puerto Rico does not need any more shipments of resources because the port is full of commodities. Ayala said he thinks the island does not have adequate infrastructure to transport resources from the ports to other areas.
“Say you are diabetic and need insulin to be refrigerated, but it’s been 10 to 12 days since the hurricane. What do you do without refrigeration?” he said. “People (are) in survival mode to get basic needs covered.”
Several students said they think President Donald Trump was wrong to criticize San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz for having poor leadership in relief efforts after the hurricane.
In a series of tweets, Trump also said he thinks Puerto Ricans were not doing enough work to help themselves in the wake of the storm.
Heredia said she thinks Trump’s critiques are unfair because she thinks Puerto Ricans are willing to work to improve the island. She added she thinks Puerto Ricans are often treated like second-class citizens by the United States, for example, by not being able to vote for the president.
“I don’t think these (criticisms) would have fallen to the states, like Florida and Texas when they needed federal help,” she said.
In spite of the current crisis, several students said they think Puerto Rico will overcome the devastation following the hurricane.
Martinez-Godas said she thinks Puerto Ricans have come together to rebuild the island after Hurricane Maria.
“I want people to know that Puerto Ricans are resilient people, that we are strong and that we will come out of this stronger than ever before,” she said.