BY J. Edward Moreno
Studying abroad can bring new experiences for students looking to add some adventure to the curriculum. But when UTRGV education major Michelle C. Hernandez decided to spend a semester in Puerto Rico this past summer, she hadn’t bargained on Hurricane Irma, and much less on Hurricane Maria.
Hernandez, 19 and a junior, was excited to go to the island as part of the National Student Exchange program. But nothing, she said, could have prepared her for what was to come.
She arrived in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, on Aug. 31. By Sept. 2, she had moved into her dorm room and was ready to embark on a semester full of new experiences and friendships. One popular hotspot for her new circle of friends was a bar called Vidy’s.
“Everyone I met was very nice,” she said. “They treat you like family. After seeing you several times, they say ‘hello’ and are familiar with you.”
The locals were quick to catch her up on some much-needed dance lessons, too.
“I learned salsa and bachata from complete strangers,” she said.
Later that same day, Sept. 2, heavy rains were predicted, but Hernandez and her fellow exchange students were not going to let that deter them from visiting the gorgeous Caribbean beaches.
“We wanted to at least see the beach before the hurricane hit,” she said. “It was breathtaking, with amazing sunrises and sunsets.”
That night, they were advised to sleep in the halls of the building, in case strong winds shattered the windows. The building manager warned them not to leave the facility and assured then they would receive an email if the situation got out of hand.
Then Hurricane Irma hit.
Classes for that week were cancelled, as nearly a third of the country was left without power. Luckily, the building where Hernandez was staying was equipped with a generator, so she had access to Wi-Fi and other increasingly scarce amenities.
Out of curiosity, Hernandez took an Uber to the beach to assess the damage.
“A lot of posts and trees had fallen, and a lot of the trees didn’t have leaves,” she recalls.
A week later, news of another – much stronger – hurricane arrived. Like every other person on the island of Puerto Rico, she tried to purchase as much water and canned food as she could, but much of it was already taken.
Hurricane Maria hit hard, she said, harder than Irma.
Hernandez spent another night sleeping in the hallway, trying to ignore the roaring winds buffeting the walls of her building. It was no use.
“That one was the worst,” she said of Maria.
The hurricane lasted from about 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., she said. At noon, as Maria continues to rage, she peeked through the glass doors at the entrance to the building, despite the security guard’s warning.
There, she saw a very tired, very wet parrot trying to find refuge just outside the entrance of the building.
“When I saw it, I started crying,” she said. “I wanted to open the door and get it, but they wouldn’t let me. And I looked up and saw several birds getting picked up and slammed by the winds. At that point I lost it, and I just cried myself to sleep.”
Once the storm ended, she again went out to assess the damage. This time, things were much worse.
“It looked like there had been a war,” she said. “It was horrible. And there were dead birds everywhere.”
She noticed that some people were picking up the birds and taking them in, but not out of the goodness of their hearts: Exotic birds have a market value of about $100 each, she said, and many of the bystanders were picking them up to sell them in the pet trade.
When she found that out, she rescued as many birds as she could and kept them in a shaded area adjacent to her building. Eventually, she found herself caring for 90 birds.
“At that moment, I cared more about the birds than I did about myself,” she said.
Though food and water were running low, she and a few other exchange students who chipped in to help offered the birds bread and hydration, but the creatures usually were too tired and disoriented to eat, she said.
“They were really tired,” she said. “They slept for pretty much a whole day.”
Some of the birds were able to rest, or even sleep, on make-shift beds of towels and blankets. Some of them soon dried off and mustered the energy to hop around their temporary home.
As they regained strength, Hernandez said, she released each bird back into the wild.
Videos and photos she posted on Twitter got the attention of the British news publication, The Telegraph.
The rest of Hernandez’s stay in Puerto Rico was less than pleasant.
She had a fever for two days, but there was no medical treatment available.
She went days at a time without running water, and for four days, survived on three cans of tuna.
Once the ATMs were up and running, she was able to switch to sandwiches from a Subway in a nearby hospital that, miraculously, was still operational. She tried to shop at markets, but they were completely out of potable water and nonperishable goods.
“I only drank about a cup of water a day,” she said.
She lost a significant amount of weight in that week, she said.
After the generators in her building went out – soon after Maria made landfall – she and her fellow exchange students spent most of their time at Vidy’s – the bar where she had had her first legal drink – because it was the only place she could find that still had electricity.
All the while, Hernandez’s father, Eliud Hernandez, and Dr. Mark Anderson, dean of the UTRGV Honors College, were working to get her on a flight back home to the mainland. There were several delays, but she was able to get a flight a week after Maria hit.
In the end, the birds that were lucky enough to survive, and Hernandez, flew back to their ultimate destinations. By October, Hernandez was at home, able to register and complete the semester at UTRGV. Though her time studying abroad was short-lived, she said, she is left with memories – some good, some frightening – that will last a lifetime.
Anderson said Hernandez faced serious adversity and dealt with it well.
“She is a very resilient person, and I admire the way she handled all of the difficulty that came about,” he said.