He was among dozens of students from Puerto Rico who flew out of San Juan last week for the FFA event, which ran from October 25 to 28. As they boarded their planes, they left an island still recovering from Hurricane Maria’s mauling more than a month ago. The power is still out, clean water hasn’t been reestablished in houses across the Commonwealth, and communication remains difficult.
Rivera, a college freshman, lives about two hours west of San Juan in the farming community of Isabela with his parents and two brothers. The day he left, lines at the gas stations were long, and the ATMs and credit card machines weren’t working. But the situation had improved enough that getting to San Juan was possible for him. The storm washed away plans to attend the convention for dozens more Puerto Rican students slated to go. “Thank God, we’ve got some savings, and we can make the sacrifice to get to San Juan,” says Rivera.
Puerto Rico won national honors in parliamentary procedure, creed speaking, and dairy cattle handling competitions at the convention. The Commonwealth’s program was the third-fastest growing FFA chapter in the country last year, continuing a years-long trend that may have screeched to a halt with the hurricane. Students’ projects were decimated and, Rivera says, many families decided to leave the island rather than risk suffering through another major storm.
While not occupied by the event, Rivera and the other Puerto Rican students able to make the trip explored downtown. They were among more than 60,000 total attendees who went to Circle Centre mall to visit the stores, ate at local restaurants (Rivera’s favorite was Steak ‘n Shake), and hoofed it around the city to see the sights.
Normally, he says, he would’ve scoped out the best places to visit before coming, but he doesn’t have internet access at home because of the storm. It’s one symptom of a larger communications problem that made it difficult for Rivera to call his parents.
About a fourth of all cellular antennas were still down as of October 17. People can still use their cell phones, regardless of the provider supplying the signal, but they have to find a working tower, Rivera says. The closest to his house is two miles away. Still, the access is limited to phone calls and text messages. Without electricity, people in Isabela are using car batteries to charge their phones, but even that is running its course as the batteries die.
Considering the chaos all around it, Rivera’s home suffered relatively minor damage. The streets downhill from it flooded. Wind uprooted nearby trees and downed power lines. Several coconut and breadfruit trees behind his grandmother’s house were ripped from the ground, crushing her fence.
The eye of the storm passed over Isabela for two and a half stressful hours. The rain and wind stopped, and the sun peeked through the clouds. Some people thought the worst was over. Rivera and his neighbors went outside to help those whose homes were threatened with flooding before the storm returned. Now they’re coping with the power outage by playing Uno and dominoes and wading together through the mess Maria made.
The last day of the convention was a half-day. Rivera wasn’t scheduled to leave until the next day. But instead of doing more sightseeing, his mind was on home. “I would like to go to a supermarket so I can carry some stuff back for my family,” he says. “I even bought some flashlights and batteries, because they are hard to find where I live.”