On Sept. 20, 2017 Hurricane Maria ravaged the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico, raking the length of the island and leaving in its wake a terrain unrecognizable to most of its inhabitants. After the storm passed, islanders set about sifting through the mud and debris and going in search of basic necessities: water, food, gas for generators, and cell phone or Wi-Fi signals to connect with relatives. Power was lost for most of the island.
The tragedy was felt by members of the Regis community including a handful of students who call Puerto Rico home. Student-athletes and Puerto Rico residents Jayson Vega (men's volleyball) and Emma Morales (women's volleyball), whose families made it through the storm safely, were among those who arrived on campus just a few weeks before Maria hit the island.
"Both my parents live in Ponce where I'm from," said Vega of his home on the southern coast. "My mother is a teacher and my father works for the transportation department in the municipality of Ponce. I also have two uncles that live there and my grandmother who lives just north of us." Morales lives on the north side in the capital city of San Juan. "Living at my house are my parents, brother and our three dogs and three bunnies. Yeah, it's a full house." she chuckled. "My grandparents live in Arecibo an hour west of San Juan and I have a few other relatives that live in the mountains. We're lucky because we have a generator so I have a lot of family friends that live in our house now because we have it."
The recovery efforts have been well underway and the island spirit is growing, but it was a very challenging September and October for both Vega and Morales. They, their families and many other Puerto Rican residents were caught off guard by Maria after Hurricane Irma switched course toward Florida. "My parents had prepared themselves for Irma and I thought that would be the one to really hit," recounts Vega. "Irma took a turn toward Florida and no one expected another hurricane to come right after. I saw the path of it on the news and got really scared." The island lost power in some spots due to Irma's force, but luckily both were able to communicate with their parents just before Maria hit.
It would be weeks before either spoke with family members again. Morales had expected to speak with relatives in Arecibo, a town one hour west of San Juan, not long after the storm passed through. "We had a home game and I was stressing out because I had heard Arecibo was going to have a temporary phone signal and we may be hearing from its residents. I was so excited and we even had a timetable, but I guess that never happened because I called my grandparents so many times before the game and I never got a hold of them. After two or three weeks though I was able to talk to them." Vega shared that, despite repeated attempts to reach his parents, over one month went by before a family friend was able to reach out and assure him all his family members were okay. "The days after (the hurricane hit) it was impossible to talk to them. They moved around to different spots to try and get cell reception that was set up but it wasn't until weeks later that we spoke. I would try every night but each time I would just get their voicemail or get a message that there was no service."
With men's volleyball a spring sport, Vega was away from the court but Morales was one month into her women's volleyball season. While the gravity of the situation was undoubtedly weighing on her, Regis men's and women's volleyball coach Marc Turiano still saw her same workmanlike attitude on the court. "Emma's mentality is almost like that of a workaholic. She gets very involved in what she does on and off the court which I think was really good for her. In practice and in games she's very businesslike and I still saw of that.
For Vega and Morales there was a feeling of helplessness being thousands of miles away. "I really wanted to be there because I felt I could do more," said Vega, "but at the same time I would be just like my parents, stuck in my house and just as helpless. That's when we decided to collect donations on campus and were able to send water and other supplies. It wasn't much but hopefully with the money we were able to save some lives." Morales couldn't have agreed more and found support from Laura Grossman, a fellow high school classmate now on the Xavier women's volleyball team. "I saw her stories and we would talk. It's the same thing for her and for a lot of Puerto Ricans. Being here (at Regis) though, you have to remember why you're here and continue to study and work hard, but it was tough. You can't stop thinking about it and it's on the news 24/7, and that's really the only place you could get your information from."
Vega and Morales were joined by fellow Puerto Ricans who would get together to pray almost every night. "I found support in other Puerto Ricans here (at Regis)," said Vega. "We would stick together and talk a lot and pray every night if we could. That was a way to get comfort from other people and know that it's not just me and my family that are going through this." Morales found comfort in other ways. "My main support system was at campus ministry. Annabella Morabito (assistant director) and Karen Marquez (graduate intern) encouraged me to go to mass so I started going with them which helped."
Morales not only found support on campus but in a planned, yet unexpected visit at RegisFest Family Weekend, an annual multi-day event held by the University. Women's volleyball was scheduled to compete on campus that Saturday, Sept. 30. "My mother and brother already had plane tickets to come to RegisFest, but that was before the hurricane hit. I wasn't able to talk to her so I didn't know if she was still able to come, and even that day I couldn't reach her." Naturally Morales found it difficult to focus during the match, but when she was subbed out of the game a welcomed surprise awaited her. "I was high-fiving all my teammates and as I headed to the bench one of the players pointed out that my mom was in the bleachers. I saw her and just started tearing up." Both Morales' mother and brother spent the next few weeks on campus, a visit that including sending supplies back to San Juan as part of the relief effort.
Both Morales and Vega are spending the holiday break back in Puerto Rico and are lending a hand where needed. Said Vega prior to heading home, "It's my first time back and I just want to see what's needed and where I can help. I'm going to offer my help any way I can." Morales' family owns a construction business and have been playing a large role in rebuilding their community. "I'll be helping my family with the business while I'm home but I also want to see what else is needed and help wherever I can. I went home for Thanksgiving for a surprise visit and I saw then that the main thing people still need is power. The hurricane had hit so hard that everything was so different and it really didn't look like home anymore. There was and is so much work to be done."
"Puerto Ricans help each other and want to help other countries even when they can't," said Vega of his homeland residents. "They are very giving and very kind. It's just our nature. We're going to figure it out."
For information on donating to the Hurricane Maria relief effort, visit the American Red Cross website.