NORMAL — Just as the damage from Hurricane Maria is still a raw wound in Puerto Rico, where half of its residents remain without power, emotions are still raw among Bloomington-Normal residents with ties to the battered island.
“We are here because we need to keep having Puerto Rico in the news,” Daynali Flores-Rodriguez said Friday at a teach-in at Illinois State University on the effects of hurricanes in Puerto Rico. “This is a long-term recovery.”
The teach-in at the Jaime Escalante Room of Hewett and Manchester residence halls in Normal included facts about the devastation, personal stories and emotions ranging from thankfulness for the survival of relatives to anger over the federal government's response.
“Puerto Ricans are American citizens … Puerto Ricans contribute $3.6 billion in taxes,” said Flores-Rodriguez, assistant professor of Hispanic studies at Illinois Wesleyan University, who was born in Puerto Rico.
She said her mother first lost power after Hurricane Irma sideswiped the island on Sept. 7. She got the power back for one day — Sept. 19 — then Hurricane Maria hit, plunging her into darkness until one week ago.
She was among the “lucky” ones. Power is not expected to be restored throughout the island until June, about nine months after the hurricanes hit and shortly before the hurricane season returns, noted Flores-Rodriguez.
ISU senior Stephanie Rodriguez, no relation to Flores-Rodriguez, a journalism major from Elgin who was born in Puerto Rico, apologized as she wiped away tears, expressing concern about her father, who still lives in Puerto Rico,
Maura Toro-Morn, professor of Latin American studies at ISU, said it's difficult not to get emotional when “the Puerto Rico that you know, the Puerto Rico of your youth, is no longer there.”
She echoed the theme of others about the anxiety caused by a lack of communication and not knowing how relatives are doing.
“You become a zombie,” she said. “I was here trying to live my life … but I was connected to Puerto Rico and trying to understand what was happening.”
Yojana Cuenca-Carlino, associate professor of special education at ISU, said, “Now people talk about life before Maria and life after Maria.”
There were positive messages at the teach-in, too.
Cuenca-Carlino talked about “stories of resiliency” and “a sense of community” in which people shared what they had and joined forces to cook meals.
Toro-Morn said the hurricanes have strengthened links among Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland and between Puerto Ricans on the mainland and back on the island.
Krista Cardona, IWU assistant director of alumni relations, is not Puerto Rican but has family living on the island.
After “a slow burn of frustration and anger at what wasn't happening” in terms of government recovery efforts, Cardona said, “I decided I couldn't just sit and watch it happen.”
Using social media, she reached out to people for donations of much-needed supplies — from batteries to baby formula — and money for mailing costs.
About 400 pounds of donations were left on her porch within a week, she said. Epiphany School collected 1,000 pounds of goods in three days, and members of the University High School cross-country team helped pack boxes.
“This is a story about how this community cares,” she said.
The goods were mailed in about 30 boxes and taken to central distribution sites in several communities by Cardona's cousin, Sarah Delgado, who lives in Puerto Rico.
“She said she got to know her island more. It was very fulfilling for her,” said Delgado.