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Education

Puerto Rico’s universities are on the road to recovery

A year after being knocked down by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican university chemists and students are back to work—but not quite back to normal

by Andrea Widener
September 17, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 37

 

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Credit: Erika P. Rodríguez
The roof of UPR Humacao’s chemistry building, where Hurricane Maria ripped down air-conditioning and fume hood connections. Many are still not working a year later.

Walking through the chemistry building at the University of Puerto Rico’s Humacao campus nearly a year after Hurricane Maria, you can still see remnants of the storm’s devastation.

There is the roof where 250-km/hour winds ripped off attachments for air conditioners and fume hoods, most of which are still not working even as a new academic year begins.

There is the blue tarp over the nuclear magnetic resonance instrument, still protecting it from water damage where an existing leak expanded into a huge hole.

There are the missing ceiling tiles and water damage that haven’t been a high priority for repairs.

Other parts of campus show signs too. There is a solar water filter that can provide clean drinking water for faculty, students, or anyone else who might need it. A trailer holds washers and dryers for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed. A classroom of desks is set up under an overhang outside, which is more pleasant than inside without air-conditioning.

Higher education recovery by the numbers

$40 million: Hurricane Maria-related insurance claims by the University of Puerto Rico system.

$5 million: Hurricane Maria-related insurance claims paid so far to UPR.

98.3%: Proportion of 58,677 students who returned to the UPR system as of November 2017. Some dropped out or moved to the U.S. mainland with their families.

Oct. 30, 2017: First day of classes for the UPR system after Hurricane Maria. Several private universities opened earlier.

But there are also signals that the once-dire situation is getting back to normal. The campus is greener and more lush than you might expect, given that hundreds of trees were knocked down. As the plants have come back, so have the faculty and students, bustling between buildings, chatting and laughing in the hallways.

“The people in Puerto Rico I call heroes because of the many difficulties [they have faced], lack of electricity and water for many months,” says University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Humacao, chemistry department chair Fabio Alape Benitez, as he drives through the primarily undergraduate campus in southeastern Puerto Rico.

“We put a lot of energy to start up the campus against many opinions that we must wait. It was very difficult. Now it is very good compared to those conditions.”

The same is true at universities across Puerto Rico. After months without electricity, communication, water, fuel, and other basics, chemists throughout the island are hard at work running experiments, writing papers, and teaching and attending classes and labs.

While the schools—especially the 11-campus UPR system—face technical and financial challenges, they are, for the most part, running smoothly and gradually getting back to normal.

“We as Puerto Rico, we as a university, we paid sorely, but we are stronger than we were a year ago,” says Jorge I. Vélez Arocho, president of Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce. “We know that we can go forward no matter what happened to us.”

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Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Dealing with disaster
Chemists on these campuses shared their stories with C&EN.
Note: UPR is the University of Puerto Rico.

Direct hit

When Hurricane Maria started barreling toward Puerto Rico in September 2017, many scientists thought it would skirt the island, just as others before it had done.

Those at UPR campuses were more worried about the aftereffects of a student strike that halted classes across the island in the spring of 2017. Students rebelled against budget cuts and tuition increases recommended by a financial oversight board brought on to deal with the Puerto Rican government’s bankruptcy.

The largest campus, UPR Río Piedras in the capital of San Juan, was one of those hit hardest by the strike. Disruptions there had interrupted classes for months. That gap was the primary reason Río Piedras and seven other UPR campuses were put on probation by their accreditation agency.

The hurricane, which hit the island on Sept. 20, was far worse than most people on the island had experienced before. Valeria Varela, a chemistry student at UPR Aguadilla, initially started studying for a Spanish test, thinking she would have class the next day. But a few hours later her home began to flood, and she spent the second half of the hurricane huddled in her car on a nearby hill with her five-year-old son and other family members.

“I was wet, I was cold, and I couldn’t turn on the car” because of fear of running out of gas, Varela says. She couldn’t even crack the windows because of the intense winds. When she returned home, she found that her house—which is not located in a flood-prone area—had filled with 1 meter or more of water. “We lost not everything, but almost everything,” Varela says.

Lauren V. Fernández Vega, a Colombian chemistry graduate student at UPR Río Piedras, was in a student housing building on campus. “The experience was horrible,” she remembers. The building’s windows shattered, and water rushed in. “After two days of the hurricane the residence was closed, and we don’t have a house here.” A professor of French temporarily took in Fernández and two other Colombian nationals.


Surveying the damage

Scenes of Hurricane Maria’s damage to University of Puerto Rico campuses


Immediate aftermath

“I’ve served in two wars, so I’ve seen devastation. But not in my life have I seen something like this,” says Héctor M. Vélez Rodríguez, UPR Aguadilla’s dean of administration, who was in the U.S. Army for 24 years.

Across the island, campus buildings were damaged or destroyed. Even in those that survived, the force of the hurricane had pushed water through closed windows so that almost every room had water damage and, quickly, mold. Thousands of trees fell on campuses, taking down power and internet lines and blocking roads. Lack of air-conditioning quickly damaged sensitive equipment.

It took Vélez Rodríguez a day in his big pickup truck to get to the school, in northwestern Puerto Rico. As he looked at the damage, he thought, “How are we going to put this campus together? It’s frustration. This is it. No one can give us the help that we need.”

But at Aguadilla and other campuses across the island, faculty, staff, students, and even community members soon showed up to help with repairs. They brought chain saws to remove trees, scrubbed fungus from lab spaces, and swept water out of flooded classrooms and leaves out of littered hallways.

They moved on to make meals, organize food distribution, and help people affiliated with the university and in the wider community apply for emergency assistance.

“The community joined together to accept the challenge, to face it, and to organize themselves to continue,” says UPR Humacao Chancellor Héctor A. Ríos Maury.

Most campuses lacked full power for weeks or months—Humacao didn’t get power back until January. Even when power and internet were restored, service was unstable.

An exception was UPR’s Molecular Sciences Research Center in San Juan, which maintained power and water through the storm and after. Built in 2010, the building withstood the hurricane with minimal damage. More important, though, it had a large generator plus water and diesel storage on site. And it never lost access to the internet, making it a vital resource for people trying to contact family both on the island and abroad.

“This place was heaven, an asylum of Puerto Rico, especially for researchers and the community,” says José F. Rodríguez Orengo, a biochemistry professor at UPR’s School of Medicine, also in San Juan. “It gave hope to scientists that we can continue doing our work despite the chaos that was going on.”

Many scientists quickly moved to get their work to safety in the building. Biochemist José A. Lasalde Dominicci, a biology professor at UPR Río Piedras, had two labs on the top floor of a biology building whose roof was being repaired when Maria hit. Those labs were destroyed.

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Credit: Erika P. Rodríguez
UPR Río Piedras chemistry professor Arthur D. Tinoco (left) with his graduate students Sergio Loza Rosas (center) and Lauren V. Fernández Vega (right). They were among the students who helped get the lab up and running again after the hurricane.

He and his students moved everything they could to the Molecular Sciences Research Center—including a confocal microscope that they drove over in his 2004 Toyota Sienna. It’s now set up in a closet that formerly held office supplies. “Right now the labs are closed, and they will probably be closed for two years,” says Lasalde Dominicci, who is also head of research in the molecular sciences building.

To accommodate research samples from fridges or freezers in buildings without power, the building’s staff unpacked a –20 °C freezer that was still on the loading dock and made more room in a new –80 °C freezer that wasn’t full yet. They took in an entire herbarium with 17,000 samples, plus 150 people from the central UPR administration, including the human resources and audit departments.

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The building also became a haven for people from across the science community. Many research groups started sharing lab benches to continue their work. Other scientists and students sat in the lobby, connecting with friends and family, charging their phones and computers, and even writing research papers.

Neighborhood residents were welcomed too, including several who needed regular treatments with respirators. Martín Montoya, operations director of the center, says they were particularly happy to power a traffic signal on a six-lane road next to the facility at a time when every light on the island was down. Before the staff connected the building’s generator to the traffic lights, “we would hear the crashes,” he remembers.

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Credit: Erika P. Rodríguez
Dalice Piñero Cruz in the lab she co-operates at UPR’s Molecular Sciences Research Center, which was one of the few buildings on the island to remain fully functional after the hurricane.

Dalice Piñero Cruz, who comanages an X-ray crystallography center in the building, says her first concern was for her students, some of whom she didn’t hear from for days after the hurricane. “Once the last student of mine reported in, I was like, OK, everything can go back to normal.”

While the group shut down its instrument briefly, “we never interrupted our work,” she says. “This enormously helped our students reach normality, which was extremely important under external conditions” that were out of their control.

Restarting labs

The chemistry building at UPR Mayagüez, on the far west of the island, wasn’t as lucky. The basement flooded, taking down research and teaching labs, the department’s NMR, and the stockroom. The mold was so bad the department had to hire professionals to clean it. “I would say for three to four months straight we stopped doing any kind of research,” department chair Enrique Meléndez says.

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Credit: Erika P. Rodríguez
UPR Mayagüez chemistry department chair Enrique Meléndez in a hallway that still needs repairs.

Chemistry professor and laser spectroscopist Marco De Jesus was locked out of his basement lab for 90 days. He remembers calling a manufacturer to explain the situation: “I have 95-plus percent humidity, no electricity, bacteria and fungi growing on optical benches and laser systems. What can I do?” he asked them. “We made plans for the worst-case scenario.”

Luckily, many of his instruments were sealed, but the lab still suffered thousands of dollars of damage. De Jesus says it was around February before research got back to normal.

Overall, the Mayagüez chemistry department sustained around $10 million in damages, Meléndez says. The university has lent the department money to make repairs that cost a few thousand dollars, such as replacing small pieces of damaged equipment. But the department is still waiting on insurance to replace or repair bigger equipment, like its NMR.

Despite the problems, the majority of labs in Mayagüez and across the island are up and running. In some cases, that is because of heroic efforts from faculty and staff.

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Credit: Erika P. Rodríguez
Melvín de Jesús spent months carrying dewars of coolant upstairs to keep UPR Humacao’s NMR alive. Eventually, the staff used construction equipment to lift the large dewar upstairs.
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Credit: Melvín de Jesús
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Credit: Melvín de Jesús

In Humacao, Melvín de Jesús is in charge of maintaining the chemistry department’s equipment, including its NMR on the second floor. A small generator kept the NMR running, but unfortunately, the cooling liquids were all on the first floor. “I would fill the small dewar, then come here to fill the magnet every week during the first few months,” he says. Each refill took six trips.

After it became clear the building’s power wasn’t coming back soon, de Jesús and his colleagues used a construction digger to lift the large dewar from the first floor to the second. “It was a very dangerous process, but it was necessary,” he says. “I was very tired.”

The uncertain situation, both in the lab and on the island itself, scared many students. “It was tough to maintain your research group under these really disastrous conditions,” says Torsten Stelzer, a pharmaceutical scientist at UPR Medical Sciences. “You have to play a little bit of the positive part and trying to convince them: This is going to get better, we’re going to get out of this. We have funding. You’re going to get paid.”

Río Piedras chemistry professor Arthur D. Tinoco sent several of his graduate students to labs in the mainland U.S. for several months. Tinoco opened up his house to several graduate students who remained. The international students had it especially hard, without family nearby to rely on.

His graduate students “were really crucial in getting the lab back on its feet. We didn’t have the infrastructure to get much administrative support, so it was really up to the students and faculty to help out and get things done.”

While most federal funding agencies were understanding, others didn’t seem to know how serious the situation was. One program officer told Tinoco that he would have extended a grant deadline if he had been in contact earlier. “But the thing was there was no way to do so,” Tinoco remembers. “There were very real communication issues that some people weren’t willing to understand.”

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Credit: Erika P. Rodríguez
José A. Rodríguez Martínez, a biological chemist at UPR Río Piedras, got an NIH grant since Hurricane Maria hit, but an NSF grant review mentioned worries about the state of science in Puerto Rico.

José A. Rodríguez Martínez, a chemical biologist at UPR Río Piedras, worked in the biology building that sustained major damage in the storm. Rodríguez’s lab itself survived—it was on the first floor—but the building’s backup generator failed. “We lost all of our freezers and all of our samples,” he says. “That was right after my one-year anniversary as a biology faculty.”

His graduate students jumped in, and so did the science community. Rodríguez got several grants from scientific societies to help replace what he’d lost, and several companies stepped up with additional help once they heard his story.

“Science is a small community, but you could feel that it was a community after the hurricane,” he says. “It took us six to eight months to get back on track. Now we’re full steam.”

Moving forward

The problem now is convincing everyone else of that. Rodríguez had applied for a major instrumentation grant from the National Science Foundation, but one of the peer reviewers was skeptical whether Puerto Rico could retain enough talent to run the machine after the hurricane.

It’s a reasonable question. Most of the private universities seem almost back to normal, but the UPR system is clearly still recovering. The effort is complicated by slow insurance payouts, the island’s bankruptcy, and the probationary status of several campuses.

 

Insurance has paid only a fraction of claimed damages, about $5 million of $40 million. “Their numbers are very different from ours,” says Darrel Hillman, who served as acting president of the UPR system during and after Maria (a new president took over Sept. 4).

The UPR system is now negotiating with the insurance companies. If they don’t pay, the Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to help. Either way, no one knows how long it will take to get the money.

Then there’s the island’s bankruptcy and the tuition increases proposed by the financial oversight board.

The university is pushing back, fearing that the increase will drive students away. “Yes, we recognize that tuition is kind of low, but that’s what the people in Puerto Rico can afford,” Hillman says.

The facilities that are operational now are working primarily because faculty and staff have stepped up and fixed what they can, says Juan Suárez Rodríguez, a chemistry professor in Humacao. But they are at the point where more funding is needed to take the next step. Despite significant damage, UPR Humacao has received around only $400,000 of an estimated $28 million in damages campus-wide.

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Credit: Erika P. Rodríguez
Juan Suárez Rodríguez, a chemistry professor at UPR Humacao, says many of the repairs on campus have happened through the tenacity of the school’s staff and students.

The university’s probationary status is also an issue. The eight UPR campuses that were put on probation after the student strikes now have to show that they are up and running. Status reports were due in early September to the accreditation agency, which will decide how to move forward in the next few months. If the campuses lose accreditation, that could gravely affect their ability to attract students and get federal money, including research funding and student financial aid.

Already, applications to chemistry graduate programs are down at both Mayagüez and Río Piedras. It’s a trend that began before Hurricane Maria and accelerated this year.

But Puerto Rican chemists think they can reverse that pattern by showing how good the science is on the island.

“We continue working hard, and we want to promote that here we have scientists of great caliber and we can compete with anybody,” biochemist Rodríguez Orengo of UPR’s School of Medicine says. “We went through difficult times, but at the end we’re still here. And we will continue to do good science.”


Are the students ready?

Deciding when to start classes after Hurricane Maria

Credit: Andrea Widener
Many universities set up outside classrooms, such as this one at UPR Humacao, because of mold or lack of air conditioning inside.

 

It was almost unthinkable that universities in Puerto Rico would reopen with no power or water after Hurricane Maria—and no idea when they would get it. But that’s just what many did when they resumed classes in October 2017.

Metropolitan University in San Juan was one of the first universities to start classes, because it wanted to restore a sense of normalcy, says Rector Carlos M. Padín Bibiloni.

“We had to move. We had to make everybody be seen again so they’d feel that we are moving to recovery,” says Padín Bibiloni. “If you stay in your house you will go crazy.”

Across the island, staff, faculty, and students all pitched in to clean up their campuses. Before the hurricane hit, Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce had the forethought to hire a company to clean up the campus after the hurricane. The university had no idea the company would cart away 1,000 truckloads of debris.

“This is an experience that you have to live it to understand it, maybe,” says Javier Carrasquillo, director of the chemistry department at Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico. “I’m so proud of the university—that we withstood, we endured, we resisted, and we are stronger.”

Almost all the campuses that C&EN visited in August became shelters for faculty, students, and the wider community. Faculty and staff prepared food for whoever came on campus. They distributed water, clothes, and other emergency assistance.

Once campuses decided to open, they informed students by radio. In most areas, one or two stations were up and running fairly soon after the hurricane, and they became a primary means of communication in the absence of phone or internet services.

Credit: Erika P. Rodríguez
UPR Humacao chemistry professor Mirna Rivera Claudio was proud that her students returned after the hurricane while facing immense challenges at home. Humacao was among the hardest hit areas on the island.

 

When school started up in October, “a lot of [the students] were still without electricity, without water, without any way of communication. And they came. And I was proud of them,” says Mirna Rivera Claudio, a UPR Humacao chemistry professor. In the UPR system, 98% of students returned to school by the end of November, and other schools had similar numbers of students come back.

When schools restarted, they had to make up for lost weeks as well as shorter daily schedules because unlit roads were dangerous at night. They compensated by running six or seven days a week—including over most of the Christmas holidays, a precious time in Puerto Rico.

Many students weren’t ready to return. Francheska N. Velázquez, a UPR Mayagüez student, didn’t have electricity or water when she first came back, and her roommate didn’t return because she needed to take care of her sick grandmother. “I didn’t want to be here, to be honest,” Velázquez says. The spring semester was better.

But others needed to be back. Ezequiel Cruz, a chemistry student at UPR Aguadilla, spent the hurricane alone, scared, in his home. The day the university opened he was there at 6 AM. “I wanted somewhere to go, and I felt like I belonged here.”

One professor saw Cruz was struggling and gave him crates of food and rechargeable solar lights so he could study at night. Before that, Cruz just took pictures of his notebook during the day and “hoped my battery didn’t die.”

Teachers had to adapt as well. No internet or power meant no class-management software or easy access to shared materials.

For example, Jessica Torres, the adviser for UPR Mayagüez’s American Chemical Society student chapter, had chosen an online textbook for her chemistry class. She eventually figured out how to make the book available on the school’s intranet, which was working reliably at the time.

“There was a sense of urgency,” she says. “We had to push and shove as hard as we could against anything. We had to do this.”

Returning to school also helped some of the faculty get back in a routine. José Ramírez Domenech, a biology faculty member at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, Ponce, lost the roof to his house. He was without power for 99 days. He also lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and says his experience with Maria was worse.

But he was glad to be back at the university. “Everything in my neighborhood was trash and misery. Coming here was like, I have comfort, I have laughs, I have love,” Ramírez says. “They couldn’t help me to build a house, but they helped me build my soul.”

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