By Camille Devincenti
Ricardo Marrero, known as Ricky, was starting his freshman year of high school when news spread that his native island, Puerto Rico, was going to be hit by a category 5 storm: Hurricane Irma. “We got really lucky. We only received a tropical storm, but the devastating part was that power went out, water was scarce, and there was barely any internet,” Ricky said. The biggest blow to Puerto Rico was that the next hurricane, Hurricane Maria, came quickly after Irma, leaving Puerto Rico little time to prepare. In addition, many of their emergency resources had been allocated to their neighboring islands who were devastated by Irma. “Hurricane Maria came just about a week after Irma. So, we have an island that’s not prepared, no power, no water, no internet, about to face a high level hurricane that we all thought was going to wipe us out. The airports all closed because of the hurricane,” Ricky said. Thankfully, Ricky’s parents were able to book Ricky and his sisters, 10 and 12 years old, seats on the last flight out of Puerto Rico. Since Ricky’s mom is American, they would be staying with their grandparents who live in Bethesda. However, they had to leave their parents behind because they are both doctors who were needed for medical help.
After traveling 1,600 miles to get to the United States, Ricky and his sisters watched live footage of the hurricane on TV screens at the airport. “It was devastating for me and my sisters to watch what was happening on live camera after the hurricane because we flew out a day before the big hit,” Ricky said. The effects of Hurricane Maria were severe: there was no internet or communication, power could not be restored, generators were destroyed, water was scarce and they were losing supplies. Ricky and his sisters didn’t know if their family was okay or if their house was okay. “We couldn’t text, we couldn’t call, there was no WhatsApp, there was no Zello – that walkie talkie app that everyone thought would work – didn’t work,” Ricky said.
A few days later, Ricky’s parents finally got one bar of data and their messages and pictures were able to send. “Houses, specifically, were having trouble with their internet because they’re on their own private routers. When those got wiped out because of the cell towers falling there was no communication. So, I remember when Hurricane Irma hit, me and my sisters would walk over to this restaurant that was half a mile away just so that we could get internet service.” When Ricky’s parents walked to that same restaurant after Hurricane Maria, the maximum service they could get was two bars of 4g data. “When they were finally able to send stuff, they sent us all of the pictures they could, they told us that they were okay, and they told us to just stay around here and they would enroll us in a public school until we could come back, since they didn’t want us falling behind in our work,” Ricky said.
Ricky enrolled as a freshman in Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and his two younger sisters enrolled in Bethesda Elementary and Westland. “I’m not sure when I’m going to go back to Puerto Rico. My parents say that if gas can be restored and school comes back, we are going to come back,” Ricky said. Luckily, as conditions in his community have been improving, he was able to fly back home last week.
“Puerto Ricans, at least for the people in my school, are commuters. We drive an hour or half an hour to get to school. When you suddenly take away gasoline for an entire island, people can’t drive anywhere, lowering job abilities and kids going to school. All the damage caused by hurricane Irma made it really hard for things to get going,” Ricky said. While Ricky hoped that his school, the St. Johns school in San Juan, Puerto Rico, would reopen in a month, the lack of gasoline is holding commuters back. “There are 8-hour lines at gas stations right now just to get gas. The government put restrictions on the amount of gas you can buy. So you’re waiting 8 hours just to buy a quarter or half tank of gas,” Ricky said.
Due to the gas problem, Ricky is waiting until it is the right time for him to return to school. “That could take 2 weeks, that could take 2 months, that could possibly take an entire semester,” Ricky said. “I was happy to be here because it’s good to see a new environment. I’m hoping for my school to be okay, for my friends to be okay, and for my family to be okay. I’m just hoping that everything will be fine. Thank you so much for having me.”