KINGSTON, R.I., Oct. 26, 2017 — When Hurricane Maria delivered a direct, deadly and devastating hit on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, the island home to 3.4 million American citizens was thrown back in time, with no electricity, running water, communications or transportation.
University of Rhode Island alumnus Francisco San Miguel and his family survived the Category 4 storm, which drenched parts of Puerto Rico with 30 inches of rain and shredded the landscape with 155-mile-an-hour winds. More than a month later, with a third of the population lacking running water, close to three million people without electricity and thousands of others without shelter, San Miguel reached out to URI to raise awareness.
By sharing his account of the disaster, which claimed 51 lives, San Miguel hopes his old URI friends — who knew him as rock-and-roll drummer “Paco” when he was a graduate student at the College of Business Administration from 1988-1990 — will be moved to aid the recovery of his native island. Excerpts from accounts San Miguel previously published and more recent impressions offered in emails, are excerpted here.
“The desperation and misery among our United States citizens in Puerto Rico is tragic. People on every square inch of this island have either lost their homes entirely or have had them damaged. There are so many stories … so many tears, so much hurt. It has tattooed my soul.”
San Miguel’s family, while unhurt, was not unscathed. His wife Sofia temporarily lost her job as a diabetes educator and expects to remain at least partially unemployed for weeks and months, he said. His son Sebastian also lost his job and has relocated to Florida for work before attending graduate school in physical therapy. Daughter Isabella, a college student, is in Portugal for a semester abroad, he said.
San Miguel, an environmentalist with a love for the outdoors and animals, wrote of the storm’s heartbreaking destruction of flora and fauna, which news reports sometimes overlook.
“Our beautiful Puerto Rican landscape of September 19, with its dazzling array of green shades highlighted by glorious colors of tropical flowers, was transformed to waves of brown on September 20.
“Prior to Maria, Puerto Rico was an island that, sadly, was accustomed to witnessing thousands of stray dogs roaming the streets…Today, not a stray animal is to be found. Their stark absence is a chilling, daily reminder of the death and destruction afflicted upon animal life on the island. The forgotten dogs do touch deep in my heart. It is tough to imagine how the stray dogs died during the hurricane winds and floods, and what they suffered.”
And as owner of the pest control company Termite Master Caribe, San Miguel worries that mosquito-borne diseases will proliferate as flooding and water stored for daily use create ideal breeding conditions.
“Mosquitoes are on the rise … I foresee a need for mosquito repellent and mosquito nets. Puerto Rico just went through extremely harsh Zika and Chikungunya virus nightmares. Four strains of dengue have always been present, and the situation will be aggravated this season with doctors’ offices destroyed or lacking power and many hospitals struggling to reopen and serve their communities.”
But in the midst of loss and hardship, San Miguel shared a positive message, too.
“Manmade technology was no match for the forces of nature. In some ways … this experience is a blessing in disguise. No longer able to use their smartphones, faces that previously would be looking down are looking up, sharing stories, finding ways to make one another smile and laugh and make the best out of a collective tragedy. There is no digital substitute for a friendly face, an outreached hand, a warm embrace, or a shared tear. Certainly, this has been a reality check — I was prisoner of that thing, that cell phone.”
San Miguel said the importance of personal contact hit home when he visited clients soon after the hurricane, not to conduct business, but to help them recover and rebuild.
“Our clients were astonishingly appreciative of seeing us and thankful like never before. Now we repeat that our service is 50 percent personal relations, 50 percent pest control. That I learned at URI.”
For those on the Kingston campus who want to help, the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies will present Peace for Puerto Rico Nov. 16 to benefit relief efforts. The event includes an open mic coffeehouse and ping pong tournament.
And with so many charities involved in disaster relief, San Miguel suggested organizations for anyone able to give. However, individuals should do their own vetting before donating to any charity:
Connect Relief: http://connectrelief.com/
World Vision: worldvision.org
Hispanic Federation: www1.nyc.gov/site/fund/donate
Cruz Roja Americana: redcross.org
For animal lovers: https://www.facebook.com/adlapr/
For environmentalists: paralanaturaleza.org