Puerto Rican students join the Brookline community after hurricane

Chloe Mckim Jepsen, Longform Managing Editor

Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island that has been part of the United States since 1898. Hurricane Maria hit the island in September, 2017. MIA ABULAF/SAGAMORE STAFF

Darwin Fernández de la Cruz sits in the Steps to Success [STEPS] room, finishing his homework. This normal Brookline scene contrasts the frenzied days he spent in September when a hurricane flooded his house and devastated the Caribbean island that was the only home he had ever known.

The 17-year-old junior, who had never seen snow before this year, left San Juan, Puerto Rico in October, less than a month after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Fernández de la Cruz is among the 114,000 to 213,000 Puerto Rican people who have moved to the United States after the hurricane, according to The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. He is one of three students to enroll at the high school this fall, joining the more than two thousand evacuees to enroll in Massachusetts schools.

Darwin, his mother and his two brothers, Lenny (junior) and Diego (4th grade), left their flooded home and troubled school system to live with their aunt. In October, the older Fernández de la Cruz brothers started attending the high school and their 10-year-old brother Diego began attending Runkle Elementary School.


Life in Puerto Rico after/during the hurricane

Fernández de la Cruz said he attended a small public high school in San Juan that suffered spotty lighting within the school and an exodus of students from the institution. His family decided to emigrate due to the toll that the hurricane took on his school system.

Fernández de la Cruz said that he knew most of the people at his former school. For him, the high school is a much larger school setting.

“{I was} always with my friends. It’s like 400 students and you almost knew everybody, you hang out with everybody. Here it is different. Two thousand students, that’s a lot,” Fernández de la Cruz said. “There were less people telling us what to do there.”

Fernández de la Cruz said he felt fearful when the hurricane beat down on his home.

1. San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and home to close to 355,000 people. All three students who came to the high school previously lived in the San Juan area. PUBLIC FORUM

“I was laying down on the couch and my family was sleeping. I was with my brothers in the dining room,” Fernández de la Cruz said. “It was a loud noise like a whistle, like a cruise ship blowing the horn. It was very loud. I was scared in the moment.”

Residents in nearby homes, he said, stood on rooftops after the storm to avoid the high sea levels.

“The trees did not have one leaf. There were trees fallen down; there were streets that were closed because the trees are big,” Fernández de la Cruz said. “There were a lot of people outside, looking in. And the people, they were going crazy, they didn’t know what to do.”

On the other hand, Alanna Carlo, a freshman, came from a well-funded, private middle school in San Juan. Carlo lived with her family in Rio Piedras, San Juan. Her father, the head of pathology at Hospital Auxilio Mutuo, stayed behind to work in the aftermath of the storm. Carlo’s family moved because of the prospect of disease.

Leptospirosis, also known as Weil’s disease, is a bacterial disease spread by diseased animals such as rats. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, humans can be infected through water contaminated by the urine of affected animals.

“We mostly left because of the fear that my dad had,” Carlo said. “He was walking around in the morgue, and there were many cases of leptospirosis, and then he would come home and have nowhere to clean himself. There was pooling behind our house and there were rats in the house so it was a major health concern.”

(Left to right) Social worker Paul Epstein, Darwin Fernández de la Cruz (17), Lenny Fernández de la Cruz (18) and guidance counselor Sara Aggeler stand in the atrium four months after the boys’ arrival from San Juan, Puerto Rico. CHLOE MCKIM JEPSEN/SAGAMORE STAFF

Transition to Brookline

On Nov. 9, 2017, about two weeks after Fernández de la Cruz and his family arrived in Brookline, they attended a fundraiser at the Brookline Teen Center that raised money for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

Social worker Paul Epstein took a personal role in assisting the Fernández de la Cruz family in their transition to mainland United States and the Brookline school system.

Epstein said it was the first time that the three brothers had seen snow. Fittingly, they arrived in Brookline with tropical weather attire. Fernández de la Cruz said that Epstein was a key person in Fernández de la Cruz’s new life in Brookline.

“There were a lot of people who helped me, especially Paul. Paul is a great guy,” Fernández de la Cruz said. “He’s helped my family, he helped us find a house, bought us coats, and brought us to a Fenway Park tour.”

Now, Fernández de la Cruz says that he enjoys Brookline, and his family plans to stay permanently. With the help of the STEPs program, he hopes to get a job in the spring.

Carlo, too has made her own transition to the high school. She said that she is thankful to be studying at the high school.

“Personally, for one I absolutely love the drama class. It’s a really good group and has a lot of really good teachers,” Carlo said. “There are also organizations like All Creatures Great and Small that works directly with animal shelters. I want to be a vet when I grow up so I found that amazing.”

What still needs to be done for hurricane relief?
What has already been done for hurricane relief? MILENA KITTERMAN/SAGAMORE STAFF

How is Puerto Rico Doing Now?

Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million people, has been a part of the United States since 1898. More people, like the Fernández de la Cruz brothers and Carlo, are expected to move to mainland United States as the island continues to recover.

Nearly 35 percent of Puerto Rican residents did not have power 90 days after the hurricane subsided in early October, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Approximately a third of the island remains without power still.

Fernández de la Cruz said that his former home did not restore power until November of last year. He also said that the water was undrinkable.

“There was no light since September,” Fernández de la Cruz said. “The water turned dirty, and when we had to buy water, it was very expensive, too expensive.”

According to FEMA, their work in Puerto Rico is the longest sustained air mission of food and water to date.

Carlo said that the south of Puerto Rico is still in need of aid.

“For the most part, the north is alright. But absolutely {FEMA} should continue providing assistance for the south and the southeast mostly,” Carlo said. “They are the ones who got hit the hardest. There are so many things that need rebuilding. It’s kind of hard to access the south without driving and because a lot of bridges have been knocked down, it hard to actually get things there.”

2. Ponce is in the south of Puerto Rico. It is home to close to 150,000 people. Southern Puerto Rico was hit hard by the hurricane. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Lenny Fernández de la Cruz’s, Darwin’s 18-year-old brother, said that Puerto Rico is still suffering.

“FEMA should {keep providing assistance} because Puerto Rico is kind of in an economic crisis and to fix it all will take years,” said Fernández de la Cruz.

Darwin Fernández de la Cruz , first excited by the falling snow, is eager, like many others, to see the warm weather arrive. He misses the beach, but is looking forward to continuing his new life in Brookline.

“Life here is a lot different. I didn’t want to come but now I would like to stay here,” Fernández de la Cruz said.