Puerto Rico

“After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and I began to see the extent of the damage, all I wanted to do was find a way to help.”


Darlene Ferreira was wide-awake during the wee hours of Sunday, May 20.

A dual major in UAlbany’s School of Criminal Justice and College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC), Ferreira would soon be among the 2,320 students earning a degree during UAlbany’s 2018 undergraduate commencement ceremony later that morning. But, the reason for her restless night was not celebrating the transition from student to alumni. It was a 4 a.m. bus departure from campus to Albany International Airport. Ferreira chose to sacrifice her own graduation, and sleep, for a 1,700-plus mile volunteer service trip to Puerto Rico.

“After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and I began to see the extent of the damage, all I wanted to do was find a way to help. Once I heard that UAlbany was planning to send students down to assist with hurricane recovery efforts, I knew I had to apply,”

said Ferreira, a native of Carle Place, N.Y. “I actually cried when I was selected because I was so excited. My family understood it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, even if that meant leaving campus on my graduation day.”

Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, last September, leaving a path of widespread destruction, and wiping out most of the electrical, gas and water grid, as well as the agriculture industry. Though local officials initially placed the number of dead at 64, an independent analysis commissioned by the governor of Puerto Rico and conducted by researchers at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health, estimated 2,975 deaths can be linked to the hurricane and its immediate aftermath.

Ferreira, along with 29 other CEHC students and two staff volunteers, were selected from a lottery of more than 200 of their UAlbany peers to help with the storm-ravaged island’s ongoing rebuilding and recovery efforts. Their four-day service trip was inspired by Governor Cuomo’s NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative. The project also aligned with the work of the SUNY Puerto Rico Task Force, which is co-chaired by UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez and SUNY Maritime President Rear Adm. Michael Alfultis.

SS Empire StateThe SS Empire in port.

The students were stationed aboard the 565-foot SUNY Maritime Training Ship Empire State VI during their stay from Sunday, May 20 through Thursday, May 24, bunking in with more than 500 SUNY Maritime cadets and 14 SUNY ESF students. The three groups joined forces with non-profit volunteers from “All Hands and Hearts” to work on project sites that focused on restoring agriculture, tourism and damaged infrastructure in the greater San Juan area.

While the cost of the trip was $584 per student, The University at Albany Foundation raised more than $50,000 to help cover costs, with the UAlbany Alumni Association and Juliana Bo Photography both pledging to sponsor 10 students. Additional sponsors included the SUNY Impact Foundation, Rose + Kiernan Foundation, Neil and Jane Golub, Martin, Harding and Mazzotti, Warren Winslow ’73, John O’Connor of Mohawk Fine Papers, Robert Blackman of Howard Hanna Realty, Tom Amell of Pioneer Bank, Bill Lia of Lia Auto Group and Darren Donohue of D&D Power, Inc.

The generous contributions left students paying just $50 out of pocket. CEHC also counted the trip toward its 100 hours of field training that is a requirement for all undergraduate majors.

“Our students’ efforts will not only help Puerto Rico recover from last year’s devastation, but also ensure that it is better prepared for such events in the future.”

President Rodríguez was one of the students’ – and the effort’s – biggest supporters. “We are proud to stand with Governor Cuomo, the SUNY System and all of New York State, in assisting our fellow American citizens in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria,” he said. “Our students’ efforts will not only help Puerto Rico recover from last year’s devastation, but also ensure that it is better prepared for such events in the future.”

CEHC Dean Robert Griffin was also a strong supporter. “This service project embodies the mission of our college, combining high quality academics with experiential learning and training opportunities. Our students are preparing themselves to be next generation leaders in disaster and emergency management.”

Arriving in Puerto Rico

Dented palm trees immediately grabbed the attention of UAlbany junior Evelyn Cuautle Suarez as the group touched down in San Juan.

“The palm trees were the first thing that caught my eyes. It made me really sad to see one of the things that makes the island beautiful, damaged. I had seen the news and images online of how damage the island was from Hurricane Maria, but it is a very different experience to see images through a computer screen, and to be there in real life. Being there, made me want to help even more than before I arrived.”

For Ferreira, it was the traffic lights. “When I was walking around San Juan, there were no stoplights or signage on the road anywhere,” she said. “There were a lot of emotions going through my head, and I was ready to get to work.”

The group’s first day in Puerto Rico was designated for travel and orientation. UAlbany Student Association President James Lamb ’91 hosted the trip’s first dinner. He and his family own a vacation condo in San Juan. They welcomed the students and gave a tour of the local region. Notably, their home had lost power for six hours earlier the same day, a stark reminder of the daily struggle those on the island are still facing.

Project One: Restoring Agriculture

For the next three days, the SUNY students were divided up based on their skill sets to work on three different project sites: agriculture restoration, reconstruction and debris clean-up.

The agriculture site was at Gan Eden Farms in Santa Isabel – located on the southern coast of Puerto Rico – where students gutted open fields full of rotten crops. The farm primarily grows tomatoes, but also had some papaya and mango trees.

“I never thought tomatoes could smell so terrible...It was devastating to see how much of their agriculture was destroyed by the storm. The farmers were extremely grateful for our help. We wanted to help them get up and running again.”

Zakhar Berkovich ’08 ’10

Director of Undergraduate Student Services,
Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy,
University at Albany

A lunch break on the farm with locals reminded junior Kinsley Alexandre why this trip was so important.

“Lounging around under the sun somehow made us all – both students and natives — decide [the language barrier] simply did not hold weight, that it would not impair our ability to get to know one another. Conversation was labored and difficult, but we still managed to learn so much about each other and bond under the hardships that the people who lived there. That lunch break reminded me that the reason I had come out to Puerto Rico was to not only spend my time doing the work in the field, but also do the work of bonding with people, connecting with them and expressing empathy for their situation.”

Project Two: Island Reconstruction

Student repainting a community center in Bayamon, Puerto Rico that was damaged by Hurricane Maria.Students repainting a community center.

The day after Hurricane Maria, a flood in the Utuado, Puerto Rico overflowed and washed away a pedestrian bridge that connected two neighboring villages. Students assigned to the reconstruction group were tasked with collecting rocks and stones from the river to help rebuild. The new “Hamanca Bridge” will be higher and stronger than the previous one.

“Our efforts made tomorrow’s work easier for the next group of volunteers and brought the bridge one-step closer to being reconstructed,” said junior Samara Bierria-Anderson, who was part of the reconstruction group. “We worked in the sun for what felt like days. By the end, I was exhausted, but optimistic about the bridge’s future. We all had one goal in mind and that was to make a difference. We certainly did that.”

Also part of the reconstruction group, other students were assigned to help remove fallen trees and repaint a community center in Bayamon. While on the site, they made a surprising new friend. The group met a stray dog named Ricky, likely abandoned due to Hurricane Maria. Ricky greeted the group every day at Bayamon. His story has a happy ending. The family of UAlbany junior Sydney Valentin, who live in Puerto Rico, decided to adopt Ricky on the trip.

Project Three: Cleaning Up Brush and Fallen Trees

The debris clean-up group helped clear brush and fallen trees from a waterway on the island’s northern coast in Toa Baja and beaches near the island’s eastern coast in Humacao. Many of trees had to be chopped down with chainsaws and carried away by tractors, giving the students a chance to operate some heavy-duty construction machinery. The debris was moved to the streets and picked up by locals who are working tirelessly to restore area tourism.

UAlbany CEHC Students help to remove fallen trees in Bayamon, Puerto Rico.

UAlbany CEHC Students help to remove trees.

“A moment that impacted me was when I saw all the debris that still needed to be removed from the beaches and roads,” Cuautle Suarez said. “There was so much to clean up, I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is going to take forever to clean up and make it look nice again.'”

“The experience made me proud of those who are staying long-term to get the work done. It is not easy, and very time consuming. I wish we could have stayed longer.”

A Commitment to Public Engagement

President Havidán Rodríguez in Puerto Rico President Havidán Rodríguez speaking to a news outlet in Puerto Rico

President Rodríguez is committed to public engagement, both as a core priority at UAlbany and in his own personal life. A native of Arecibo, the president has family members, including his mother, who still live on the island and were directly impacted by 2018’s catastrophic hurricane season. He toured several of the projects sites with the mayor of Toa Baja during the students’ last day of service to show his gratitude.

The moment made Ferreira proud to be a Great Dane.

“He visited us while we were finishing up repainting the community center in Bayamon,” she said. “When he walked in, I was so excited. He talked with us for about 15 minutes and just thanked us for helping his country. It’s amazing to have a President at our University who supports us the way he does. He made sure to show his support at every single project site. It really meant a lot to our group and gave us the extra push needed to keep working through the harsh conditions and hot island sun.”

Laying the Groundwork

The work done in late May continued over the summer. Dozens of additional SUNY students already departed for Puerto Rico in mid-June. They were the first of approximately 500 SUNY and CUNY students that participated in two-week deployments to the island through August.

In January 2019, 45 UAlbany students from diverse majors and seven faculty/staff departed for Puerto Rico as part of the initiative. About half of the students spent 10 days in La Chorra, Mayagüez. The others were in the San Juan region for more than a week.

Ferreira still has no regrets about missing her graduation. She returned to UAlbany as a graduate student in the School of Criminal Justice.

“I honestly wish I could do this type of work for the rest of my life,” she said. “I would make the decision to miss my own graduation for this trip 100 times over again. The people of Puerto Rico are fellow American citizens and need our support. I’m grateful to Governor Cuomo, SUNY and UAlbany for giving us an opportunity to help.”