At the U. of Puerto Rico, Widespread Damage and Anxiety After Maria

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A report by Sam Hoisington for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

More than a week after Hurricane Maria made landfall, the leaders of Puerto Rico’s public university are confronting damaged buildings, broken windows, felled trees, and water damage, a level of destruction that they say will keep their campuses closed for at least several more weeks.

“Pretty much they are devastated,” Walter Alomar, president of the University of Puerto Rico’s board of governors, said of the institution’s 11 campuses. The only campus that has working electricity or water, he said, is the medical campus in San Juan.

The hurricane damage is yet another in a series of challenges the university has faced. Earlier this month, the campuses were closed for more than a week after Hurricane Irma blew through. Before that, student strikes over budget cuts significantly disrupted the university’s operations during the spring semester. And the government’s budget crisis has been wreaking havoc at the university over the past few years.

“Pretty much everyone is worried,” J. Miguel Santiago, a fourth-year journalism student at the Río Piedras campus, wrote in an exchange of messages on Twitter. “The UPR has probably had its worst year in modern history.”

Starting to Rebuild

The hurricane caused widespread chaos and communication outages across the island after making landfall on Wednesday of last week. Two days later, Mr. Alomar said, university employees returned to their campuses to begin the cleanup. Students and volunteers, he added, also have been helping.

“They have been working, cleaning, and they have a really good attitude,” Mr. Alomar said. “In spite of the severe damages, we’re now starting to rebuild.”

University leaders estimate that it will take at least three to four weeks to make the campuses suitable for students to return. It could take months, Mr. Alomar said, to repair the damages.

The university has faced a number of financial struggles, but Mr. Alomar said that insurance and disaster-relief money should cover the costs of fixing the campuses. “Our budget problems will not be worsened by this hurricane,” he said.

However, students are beginning to worry about how much class time they are missing, and they say there is widespread apprehension about being able to finish their degrees.

The two hurricanes, Irma and Maria, slammed Puerto Rico like a one-two punch. The fall semester had barely begun when the Category 5 Irma delivered a glancing blow to the U.S. territory on September 7. Thirteen days later, Maria landed a direct hit.

The university is planning to extend the current semester, which normally would have ended in December. It could reach into January or February, or even as late as March or April. As a result, the spring semester will probably have to extend into the summer months.

“Our intention is that the students do not lose the semester,” Mr. Alomar said.

Student Anxiety

Mr. Santiago, the journalism student, and others said that, despite administrators’ promises, students at the university are nervous about whether they really will be able to get their class time in.

Fabiola Victoria Pagán, a fourth-year chemistry student, expects to graduate after five years at the university. She said she doubts that all of the university’s campuses will be able to finish this semester.

“We’ve only had three days of class,” Ms. Pagán said via Twitter message. “I have no idea how they will make up for all of this lost time.”

Ms. Pagán said she was cancelling her plans to study abroad in Spain next semester out of fear that she wouldn’t be able to complete the classes she is currently taking.

“The UPR has many many obstacles and problems,” she said, “and Hurricane María has made them significantly worse.”

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