On Sept. 20 a dozen UCF students and faculty came together one of the most iconic gathering spaces on campus: the Student Union. Everyone brought something to share. Music. Dominoes. Letters to their loved ones. Memories.
“It’s just like we do in Puerto Rico,” says health science major Victoria Hernandez-Cruz. “This is a way we remember home.”
The students talk about the island beaches and Sunday street foods in Piñones. It’s all familiar. And so is the path that led them here to UCF in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the worst storm in Puerto Rico’s recorded history, which struck the island as a high-end Category 4 storm exactly five years ago on Sept. 20, 2017. More than 300,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland U.S. following the storm. Since that day, UCF has grown one of the nation’s biggest cohorts of Puerto Rican students. Hundreds of them probably wouldn’t be at UCF if it weren’t for personal twists of fate after Maria. In response to water shortages and power outages that lasted up to a year in Puerto Rico, UCF offered in-state tuition rates to students whose education had been disrupted (About $6,350 per year instead of nearly $22,500 for non-Florida residents).
“I ask myself all the time, ‘What if I didn’t have the opportunity to come to UCF when things were so bad in Puerto Rico?’” says Victor Martinez-Rivera ’20, who earned a bachelor’s in advertising/public relations and is currently pursuing a master’s in interdisciplinary studies at UCF. “It’s hard to imagine.”
With Maria’s impact to Puerto Rico estimated to have caused at least $43 billion in damage, the island is still recovering with a fragile power grid. And now as Hurricane Fiona has hit the region five years later — with thousands left without electricity again — it is another reminder of the resilience of Puerto Ricans and the importance of community.
Before Hurricane Maria
Everyone from Puerto Rico has a vivid memory of life prior to September 2017. Hernandez-Cruz and her mother would take trips to the beaches around Rincon. Martinez-Rivera practiced photography outside the family’s home in Toa Baja. As a teenager in Barceloneta, UCF Sociology Professor Fernando Rivera remembers sitting in mango trees and letting the tropical breeze sway him.
“These are the kinds of memories that connect us as a community,” Rivera says.
Pegasus Professor of History Luis Martinez-Fernandez recalls freedom. He’d been born in Cuba a year after the government there was overthrown. His family fled to Peru, where they watched on TV as a coup d’état sent that country into an undemocratic path. In 1970 they moved to Puerto Rico, a land of growing prosperity and security.
“We enjoyed life in Puerto Rico because we didn’t feel vulnerable,” says Martinez-Fernandez. “We never thought of the possibility of an attack. We had brushes with hurricanes, but the threat of devastation was not part of our mindset.”
As a social scientist who studies disasters, Rivera knew long before Maria formed that vulnerabilities existed in the island’s infrastructure, which included the University of Puerto Rico’s (UPR) 11 campuses.
“Preparation makes all the difference,” he says. “I’m not talking about people buying water and boarding up windows. People are resilient. But how resilient are the power and communications systems? What about the emergency resources? Leaders need to plan for decades. If they don’t, vulnerabilities can be exposed. With Maria, the vulnerabilities surpassed expectations, and the people suffered.”
Martinez-Rivera was just starting his second year at the UPR in September 2017. The college experience had been frustrating, stalled by budget cuts and a prolonged strike.
“My education was not what I’d hoped for,” Martinez-Rivera says.
Then the threat of Hurricane Irma shut schools down again. Like so many hurricanes over the years, Irma scraped the island. Although the storm left thousands without power, it reinforced a feeling that Puerto Rico wouldn’t take a direct hit.
Hernandez-Cruz had begun her senior year of high school.
“We didn’t think much after Irma passed,” she says. “So, when we heard about a storm called Maria developing a few days later, people thought it probably wouldn’t be much either.”
Martinez-Fernandez had been visiting family in Puerto Rico when Irma came through. Three days later he flew back to Orlando, essentially following the hurricane’s route.
“Irma did a lot of damage in Florida,” he says, “but the preparation of public infrastructure here prevented what was about to happen in Puerto Rico.”
In another twist, earlier in the month a handful of UCF students started the Puerto Rican Student Association (PRSA).
“It turns out,” Rivera says, “the timing of the PRSA organizing could not have been better.”
On Sept. 19, 2017, Rivera ended a call with his dad with “I’ll call you in couple of days to see how you’re doing.”
In her boarded Bayamòn home, Hernandez-Cruz watched a meteorologist on the late news sign off with, “Good night. Be safe.”
“It all ended right there,” she says. Everything went dark. She heard a whistling sound and felt water coming into her home. Fifteen miles away, in Toa Baja, Martinez-Rivera heard neighbors screaming and trash cans crashing into houses.
“We couldn’t see anything, which made the noise more profound.”
An eerie silence fell over the island the next day. No power. No phone service. In Central Florida, which is often called “Puerto Rico’s 79th municipality,” fear was as thick as the humidity.
“You could see the glaze in the eyes of people who have family in Puerto Rico,” says Rivera. “We didn’t know about survivors or the extent of damages.”
Students came to him in the provost office where he worked, mostly because Rivera understood the culture and emotions. He listened and gave them direction. The PRSA, not even a month old, provided a community of support.
In the quiet of Puerto Rico, without power, water, or fuel for commutes, students everywhere began to lose their own direction. Hernandez-Cruz says, “It didn’t seem like there was much urgency to restore anything.”
During a media interview two months after Maria, Martinez-Fernandez said, “From now on, Puerto Rican history will be viewed as ‘before Hurricane Maria’ and ‘after Hurricane Maria.’” Central Florida, he added, would be at the forefront of a population movement.
“For Puerto Ricans, this is an attractive destination. For me it was attractive as a sociological laboratory,” Martinez-Fernandez says. “It’s refreshing because you don’t need political connections to advance. Puerto Rican students at UCF don’t have the debilitating weight of classism that exists in other cities. It’s an easier transition.”
While students wondered when their education would resume in Puerto Rico, the UCF Board of Trustees agreed to offer in-state tuition to those students impacted by Maria. Martinez-Rivera’s mom saw a story about the tuition program in a newspaper. Martinez-Rivera went to a KFC with Wi-Fi and filled out an application. Three weeks later, Martinez-Rivera was one of hundreds of students affected by Maria to receive letters starting with the words: “Hey Knights!” As of Fall 2022, 345 students have benefitted from the waivers, which were extended to assist students admitted to UCF or any Florida state college by Spring 2019 through Summer 2023.
When Hernandez-Cruz found out about the tuition program, which she was able to use at Valencia College first before transferring to UCF, she thought, “I can afford a four-year degree and pursue a medical career.”
Both students found something just as important as affordable tuition when they arrived on campus: community. The PRSA that launched a few months earlier with a handful of students became a second family. It meant so much to Hernandez-Cruz that she would later become vice president of the organization. She estimates 140 students are now actively involved, with each one impacted by Hurricane Maria, whether personally or through family members and friends, in some way.
“We’re all motivated to do well,” she says, “because we’re so grateful.”
More Silver Linings
Rivera says when he came to UCF after completing a postdoc from Rutgers in 2005, he sensed a major shift coming.
“The Latino population wasn’t nearly as visible, and our voices were minimal, but I knew it would change rapidly,” Rivera says.
Martinez-Fernandez saw Central Florida as a new frontier for Puerto Ricans. He even created a proposal for a Puerto Rican Studies Center at UCF. Later, Rivera would develop the foundation of the Puerto Rico Research Hub, which officially launched in 2018 with Rivera as the director. Before 2017, the idea trailed priorities like a football stadium and medical school.
“Hurricane Maria expedited the need,” Martinez-Fernandez says.
Students who came to UCF after Maria have used the hub to do their own research on what went wrong and how to avoid another aftereffect. Some have gone to graduate school and taken their findings back to Puerto Rico to initiate real change.
There’s also a pride that cannot be quantified. When Rivera goes into the Orlando community, people from Puerto Rico tell him how impressed they are with the differences the university is making.
“People know that UCF cares about them,” he says.
In the Student Union, Hernandez-Cruz doesn’t expect much conversation about Maria. It’s too hard to relive — the storm and leaving home. Privately, though, she says, “As difficult as it was, coming to UCF turned out to be a blessing after the storm.