FOR BREAKING NEWS VISIT WWW.QNS.COM JANUARY 25, 2018 • KIDS & EDUCATION • THE QUEENS COURIER 43
kids & education
Bayside student returns to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
BY SUZANNE MONTEVERDI
firstname.lastname@example.org / @smont76
Paola Beniquez, 18, grew up in Puerto
Rico and arrived in Queens last summer
to pursue her liberal arts studies at
Bayside‘s Queensborough Community
College, where she also plays for the
women’s volleyball team.
Mere weeks into her semester, on Sept.
20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall
on Puerto Rico and unleashed a path of
destruction unprecedented in the island’s
history. Fear struck the San Juan native,
who wasn’t immediately able to get in
contact with her family.
“We are no strangers to hurricanes,”
Beniquez said. “Th ere have been times
when we lost water for several days, the
schools were closed, and once I even had
to sleep in my car. But nothing like this.”
Now, nearly four months aft er the
hurricane swept the island, for many
Puerto Ricans, life still remains in disarray.
According to the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA), 3 million
people, almost the entire population of
the island, went without power for more
than 30 days aft er the hurricane made
landfall. In the fi rst 90 days, power was
restored to about two-thirds of the island;
but thousands are still without. FEMA
has called it the “largest federal response
to a disaster” in American history.
Aft er breathing a sigh of relief when she
found out her family was safe and sound,
Beniquez returned to the island for the
holidays last month. Descending in the
airplane toward the island on Dec. 20
— exactly three months aft er the storm
hit — the emotions were overwhelming.
Beniquez was one of many passengers
who erupted into tears at the sight.
“A lot of places looked really damaged,
especially along the coast. It wasn’t as
green as it usually is. It looked paler,” she
Aft er being picked up by her father at
the airport, Beniquez saw the damage at
street level. Many streets signs and lights
were down and out, windows cracked or
missing and buildings damaged or crumbling.
Many small businesses and malls
have yet to re-open. Th e hurricane aff ected
each part of the island in diff erent
ways, she explained.
“It’s been really hard,” she said. “My
dad lost his job and my mom only can
work four hours a day.”
In spite of this, Beniquez’s family
has found a way to stay in good spirits.
Having to ration food due to shortages,
her parents told her they have been on a
“Hurricane Maria diet.”
“Th e people over there are really united
and we’re proud of who we are,” she said.
“We’re from a small island but we do really
Beniquez, an art student, was struck by
the island’s resilience iterated through its
street art. Painted Puerto Rican fl ags can
be found on crumbling buildings and
public spaces. Flag are also fl own proudly
from many local residences.
“For me, that was very touching,” she
said. “We’re proud. We don’t want to lose
Her family and neighbors have been
overwhelmed by the amount of supplies
that have been sent to the country from
around the world. But what is really
needed, Beniquez said, are “boots on the
“Th e help we were expecting were people
coming down and helping in street
and helping with cleanup,” she said.
“Th ere’s so much to be done.”
Th e whole experience — in particular
a visit to a favorite local beach that sustained
substantial damage in the hurricane
— was “eye-opening.”
“A lot of places I used to go, I feel like
I appreciate them a lot more,” Beniquez
said. “It was a very eye-opening experience
for me, the whole situation. It
changed my perspective on life.”
Th e student’s school community has
rallied around her these last few months,
she noted. Her volleyball coaches volunteered
to collect supplies, donate money
and spread the word about the country’s
plight. Professors and faculty at the
school also off ered their help and support.
“I really can’t explain the emotions,”
she said. “Th ere really are still good people
Th is spring, Beniquez will be busy putting
together her art portfolio with the
goal of transferring to Pratt Institute in
the fall to study interior design. Th ere,
she hopes to also continue her volleyball