After Hurricane Fiona: one Puerto Rican family faces setbacks to recovery

Puerto Rican student reflects on Hurricane Maria while observing Fiona from afar.

Voluenteers unload and distribute emergency supplies in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Laura Umpierre calls her mom every day to check on her situation in Puerto Rico. While the push notifications on her phone update once every minute, Umpierre dreads watching the news after living through Hurricane Maria.

Hurricane Fiona, a Category 4 tropical storm, carved through the island on the morning of September 18. The damage is severe, and the affected areas will be uninhabitable for weeks or even months.

“It’s scary. It’s very dangerous. The hurricane is horrible,” Umpierre said. As a master student at USC’s Gould School of Law, Umpierre feels helpless in the wake of Fiona being so far away from her hometown of Ponce in the southern part of Puerto Rico.

“I feel a sense of impotence of not being able to help,” she said.

Using a group chat, Umpierre is trying to keep in contact with her family, especially her mother, Elia Matos, a family lawyer who lives in the center of the hurricane. The two have been exchanging photos daily to ease their anxiety.

“She has been giving me words of comfort,” Matos said. “It’s good we didn’t lose communication.”

The unsteady internet and power connection reminds Matos of Hurricane Maria, another storm that devastated Puerto Rico only five years ago, which caused the largest blackout in U.S. history and took about a year to restore full power. Matos worried she would lose contact with her daughter for days again.

But this time, the 3,000 miles and three-hour time difference separating Umpierre and Matos exacerbates the challenge.

As Hurricane Fiona left the island and swept north toward the Atlantic Ocean, most Puerto Rican residents fell into darkness and desperation due to power outages and massive flooding that engulfed thousands of homes.

“For us, the storm is never the problem. It’s the aftermath,” Umpierre said. Her mother told her that morning on the phone that it could take up to three months for Puerto Rico to recover from this storm.

Just two days have passed since the hurricane began, and young adults and community members have already begun rebuilding.

One of Umpierre’s friends, Monica Prieto who is in Ponce, Puerto Rico, distributed bottled water to areas in need when President Biden declared a major disaster for Puerto Rico on Sept. 21. The insecurity and vulnerability Prieto witnessed in surviving natural disasters led her and her friends to initiate a volunteer group to provide aid to communities in the south part of Puerto Rico.

Since its inception, the Instagram-based group has delivered $15,000 worth of supplies after disasters like the 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck in 2019, and have resumed their efforts to offer support in light of Hurricane Fiona.

The group formed as a reaction to the distrust community members felt toward the inefficacy of fund and donation distribution by the federal government.

“People don’t trust donating to the government because of what happened in the past,” Prieto said.

With millions of dollars in donations either expired or never distributed in the warehouse, Prieto can’t stand the situation. Thus, she began reaching out to people in need and community leaders directly; packing and transporting necessities.

“A lot of young people are coming forward to help,” Prieto said.

As her hometown continues to struggle, Prieto struggles returning to business as usual. She finds it imperative to focus on helping her community arrive at some basic level of stability.

When the hurricane hit, she took time off work to serve as a community coordinator. As a response to the chaos, she counts and sorts all the incoming donations and emergency supplies – and she even delivers them by truck.

Umpierre has been watching these efforts back at USC, frustrated by the inability to get involved herself. She remarked how difficult the political situation has been in Puerto Rico, where the last two governors faced abolition from the public due to mismanagement. Umpierre accounts the treacherous leadership and its inadequate effort against the unavoidable casualty, “It’s now [up to] Puerto Rican help Puerto Rican.”

Despite assistance from community members, the uncertain future of the island leaves many people worried. Hurricane Maria significantly damaged the infrastructure of Puerto Rico five years ago. Though the power grid has allegedly been restored, it is still known to be unreliable and fragile.

Repairing the power system is a collective effort by Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which declared bankruptcy months before Hurricane Fiona, and a Canadian company, LUMA Energy.

With work still pending to restore power from Fiona, more than 610,000 residents are out of power once again, and nearly 85% of Ponce county remains gloomy.