Illinois students collect aid for Puerto Rico in aftermath of Hurricane Maria

Siv Schwink
10/30/2017

Half of funds raised will go to Mexican earth quake victims

Members of the campus chapter of Puerto Rico Rises deliver emergency supplies to the Aurora chapter, for transport to Florida, and on to Puerto Rico. Luis Miguel de Jesús Astacio is on the far right.
Members of the campus chapter of Puerto Rico Rises deliver emergency supplies to the Aurora chapter, for transport to Florida, and on to Puerto Rico. Luis Miguel de Jesús Astacio is on the far right.
When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20, it was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in over 80 years. It ravaged the island’s infrastructure—tearing up roadways, destroying power lines, razing homes, and contaminating fresh water sources.

Now, more than a month later, there is still no power, many don’t have access to clean water, and transportation and communication are limited across the island. More than 73,000 of the island’s 3.4 million residents have evacuated and are now in Florida. And mounting evidence reported by news agencies in the U.S. suggests the official death toll of 51 is grossly undercounted.

Luis Miguel de Jesús Astacio closely followed the catastrophic storm and its aftermath in the news. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he had moved to Urbana on August 14 to attend the prestigious PhD program in physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

After the storm pummeled the island, about a week and half would pass before De Jesús Astacio was able to reach members of his family and learn that they were all safe and whole.

“They are doing okay. No one was injured or died among my family and friends. We were very lucky,” he shares.

Hurricane Maria spans the island of Puerto Rico and the archipelago on September 20, 2017.
Hurricane Maria spans the island of Puerto Rico and the archipelago on September 20, 2017.
De Jesús Astacio recounts how his immediate family worked to save their home in Trujillo Alto, one of the municipalities adjacent to the capital, San Juan:

“My two brothers went out into the storm and cut down a metal fence that was piled up with leaves and debris, blocking the water from draining and causing our home to flood. They also unclogged a storm drain of debris—right in the middle of the hurricane. They are very strong and a little bit crazy. My family spent about 10 hours during the storm just bailing water out from the house as it was seeping in.”

The water has since receded from the part of the island where De Jesús Astacio’s immediate family lives. But today, much of his extended family is still without power or clean water. One uncle lost a portion of his house to the storm.

De Jesús Astacio says he was disappointed in the U.S. emergency response to the devastation of his home island. That’s why he is doing what he can from here to make sure Puerto Ricans receive the assistance they need.

“I wanted to take matters into my own hands—to help. I started contacting people, seeing what I could do, and then I was contacted by a group on campus called Puerto Rico Rises that was trying to do the same thing. I joined forces with them.”

A flooded neighborhood in Puerto Rico
A flooded neighborhood in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico Rises is a non-profit organization initiated in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and chapters have popped up across the states.

“Puerto Rico Rises was started in Florida because Puerto Ricans there realized most of the aid being sent wasn’t getting to the people who needed it,” De Jesús Astacio elaborates. “It was mostly going to San Juan ports and being held there, not getting to the central island, where most help is needed.”

“The mission of Puerto Rico Rises is to collect donations—in particular physical goods—and deliver this aid to the places where it’s most needed. The group on campus was just getting going at the same time that I was trying to get started. A graduate student in civil engineering, Jose Rivera-Perez, started the campus group. It was Rebeca Agosto, a political science student, who reached out to me—I have known her since elementary school, and she knew I would be interested. Now, there are a lot of students who are involved in helping—probably about 20, all from different disciplines, like political science, engineering, and entomology,” he continues.

“Our chapter has two missions, and the first is directly related to the mission of Puerto Rico Rises in Florida: all chapters send the physical donations they collect to the Florida chapter, and that chapter will get it to Puerto Rico,” De Jesús Astacio explains.

That portion of the mission is now complete, and the group is no longer accepting material donations. Four students from the campus chapter, including De Jesús Astacio and Rivera-Perez, drove to Aurora, IL, on Sunday, October 22, to deliver the physical contributions they’d collected to the Aurora chapter, for transport to Florida, and then on to Puerto Rico.

The second mission of the campus chapter is to collect monetary donations through a crowdfunding website, YouCaring.com. This part of the effort will continue until November 7. Funds raised will be shared with another relief effort. One half will go to Puerto Rican emergency response efforts that have demonstrated effectiveness:

“We have a committee in our group that’s creating a list of known initiatives in Puerto Rico with demonstrated impact. We are collecting first-hand reports from residents of Puerto Rico, learning which groups are actually getting something done. Rebeca Agosto has been instrumental in this effort. We will decide based on this research whether to split the money for Puerto Rico between different groups or give it to one group.

The second half of the funds will go to Mexico, for earth quake relief. That portion will be distributed to Mexican relief agencies by another campus registered student organization called M.CE.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlan).

In the meantime, De Jesús Astacio is doing his best to keep up on his studies—all of this has made focusing on his challenging physics graduate program at Illinois all the more challenging:. He is currently completing the first of three rotations in faculty research labs, before he will be allowed to join a faculty member’s research team. He says he is leaning toward biological physics as his subdiscipline of choice—in part because of his affinity for biology and in part because he enjoys working on interdisciplinary research.

“In biophysics, you can use the formalism of physics to see the same biological problem from a different perspective,” De Jesús Astacio shares. “I’m also very interested in applying physics to the neurosciences, but it seems natural to focus on biophysics before specializing in neurophysics.”

“It was hard to be away—hard to focus. But it’s better now that I know my family is okay. And it’s good to be able to make connections with other students and to help out from here. Our fundraising effort will go to November 7,” De Jesús Astacio concludes.

How you can still help: donate to the crowdfunding campaign at

https://www.youcaring.com/relieforganizationsinmexicopuertoandthecaribbean-963473.

A FEMA team inspects road damage caused by Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico.
A FEMA team inspects road damage caused by Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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