Professors fight for Puerto Rico


Associated Press

DeKALB — More than a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall, victims in Puerto Rico are still unable to power their homes and access clean water, but members of the campus community have plans to aid the island.

Rosita Lopez, Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations associate professor, arrived in Puerto Rico six days after the hurricane struck to get her father and bring him back to Illinois. Lopez stayed on the island for a little more than two weeks.

Lopez plans to return to Puerto Rico Nov. 14 on her own to give assistance to those in need and help with fixing damaged homes.

“I don’t ever want to forget what I saw or how I felt,” Lopez said. “It was like being in a really bad movie. It was like a bomb hit, and these are the remaining survivors. Trying to get up the roads and moving around was extra hard. It was just horrible.”

Although Lopez went to the island to pick up her father, she stayed to help aid victims and other family members. She used her own rental car to fill up gas containers for individuals who needed to fill their vehicle’s gas tanks.

“At least I got them moving so they could go somewhere and connect to families, so they know they’re alive,” Lopez said.

The government of Puerto Rico provided oases with drinkable water, Lopez said. She would also use her car to pick up the water at the oases to hand out to people in her father’s neighborhood without access to a car, so they could wash up and cook.

“Finding clean water was very hard,” Lopez said. “The water we were given was supposedly drinkable, but from that water I ended up with a skin infection and an eye infection.”

Lopez said while she was on the island, hospitals weren’t operating; despite having empty shelves, grocery stores were flooded with lines of shoppers and purchases were limited to cash transactions only; there were no lights controlling traffic; police were scattered everywhere, and forensics labs had 400 unclaimed bodies.

“It was a mess,” Lopez said. “Think of the worst situation, and that’s what it was like. Everything was slow.”

A group effort

Laura Johnson, Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations associate professor, is also planning a service trip to Puerto Rico to aid victims.

Johnson has worked in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community for 25 years and has a relationship with organizations there that are planning their own relief efforts. For the past seven years, Johnson has also taught a graduate-level research class in Chicago’s Humboldt Park. Johnson visits Puerto Rico regularly and has friends across the island that have seen the devastation firsthand.

“Right when the hurricane hit, I had the idea of bringing volunteers down there to volunteer during November or December,” Johnson said.

The trip is planned to be a five-to-seven-day service trip with a significant amount of training for the volunteers before the trip. Volunteers will be aiding in distributing food and supplies, cleaning roads and rebuilding wherever needed.

The trip is still in the planning phase, Johnson said. It is estimated it will take place sometime in January or over spring break. Johnson is applying for grants and requesting financial aid from private donors to help fund the trip.

“We want it to be a learning experience for those who decide to go,” Johnson said.

Johnson has already sent supplies — food, water, solar lamps and water tablets — out to victims, which she said is costly and time consuming. Puerto Rico’s residents have to wait in line at the post offices for two hours to pick up supplies that have been sent, and shipping supplies to the island can cost up to $50 per box, Johnson said.

“There has been a lot that the people of Chicago have been doing, but the situation is pretty grave,” Johnson said. “It is being said that it will take up to six months to regain power in some areas. It’s unimaginable.”

Johnson said the relief trip is still being planned, so no one has signed up yet. Puerto Rican officials are unable to accommodate volunteers because of the poor conditions.

“It has been heartbreaking for me to see the destruction of a place that I love so much and to know what residents there are going through,” Johnson said. “I thought it would be a great opportunity for students, faculty and staff that have all different types of expertise and enthusiasm to use some of these skills in the rebuilding process. It’s going to be a long process.”