You are here

DII schools in Puerto Rico demonstrate resilience as they rebuild after hurricane

Student-athletes at Puerto Rico-Bayamon clean up fallen limbs after Maria. Though seasons were shortened or delayed, teams have returned to play. Photos submitted by Jerry Batista

When the rain finally stopped and the ruthless gusts subsided, Jerry Batista emerged from one home to check on another. The athletics director at Puerto Rico-Bayamon trudged toward the university’s gymnasium — the hub for several of the school’s Division II sports teams — and braced for destruction that undoubtedly awaited. Security guards on campus cautioned him to turn back. But Batista walked onward. With each step, his feet squished loudly against the soaked earth. Somewhere above, birds chirped.

Hurricane Maria had just pummeled the island Sept. 20, leaving most of its 3.4 million residents without electricity and access to clean water. Its 50- to 60-mile girth and 150 mph winds combined to make the Category 4 storm among the worst in American history. Batista, like many Puerto Ricans, had lived through hurricanes before. But none was as devastating as this one. 

As he approached, Batista could just make out Puerto Rico-Bayamon’s mascot name, “VAQUEROS,” spelled mostly in bright blue letters above the athletics facility. Maria had stolen the “A” and the “O,” leaving behind only a ghostly outline.

Inside, soggy chunks of ceiling and other debris littered the floor. Pools of water covered the hallways, the bathrooms and the wooden gym court. Too much sunlight breached the tattered roof.

The Vaqueros’ home had been invaded. In that moment, alone, Batista could only let the sight sink in. 

“It is pretty amazing, after you work so hard to get everything, and maybe you don’t have that much, but it is your place, right?” he says. “So as soon as you see that — see the devastation — you say, ‘Wow, how the hell are we going to recover from that?’”

Not long after that day, the athletics director got his answer. He and his staff first scrambled to reach all of their student-athletes and ensure their safety, a formidable challenge due to the damage to the island’s cellphone infrastructure that cut off cell service to more than 90 percent of Puerto Ricans. But the outreach did not flow in only one direction: Just days after the storm, around a hundred Bayamon athletes returned to their athletics facilities, ready to pick up tree limbs, sweep out water, and begin clearing the path for a return to their sports.

Athletics can seem inconsequential amid an extensive disaster recovery. These students were driven by a larger purpose.

“We had a lot of people that lost their houses and lost everything,” says Luis Roldan, a member of the Vaqueros cheerleading squad. “So we really wanted to bring things back to normal … not only for us, but for all the community.”

The havoc Maria wreaked across the island resulted in hundreds of lives lost, whether directly or indirectly from the storm. Puerto Rico already was grappling with a recession before it was slammed with more than $90 billion in hurricane damages, according to some estimates.

Roldan’s teammate, Amanda Rivera, added that their cleanup efforts at Bayamon, and the resulting swift return to cheerleading practice, served as a welcome escape from hardships at home. “We wanted to use it as a stress reliever,” Rivera says, “so we could get our minds off things.”

The Bayamon college athletes weren’t alone in their belief that rebuilding needed to be a team effort. Across the island, on Puerto Rico’s west coast, student-athletes at Puerto Rico-Mayaguez stepped up in similar ways to help with the local recovery. Ismael Pagan-Trinidad, the director of the civil engineering and surveying department and the university’s faculty athletics representative, says he noticed many athletes developing into leaders during the crisis. “They’re very resilient,” Pagan-Trinidad says. “Seems to me our student-athletes are role models to imitate.”

Bayamon, Mayaguez and the third NCAA Division II school on the island, Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, are part of an interuniversity athletics league on the island. While many of the professional leagues canceled their seasons after the hurricane hit, the interuniversity league decided to play on. Their late start — universities were closed for at least a month, many longer — demanded adjustments to the athletics calendar. They scrapped games to shorten seasons. They carried fall seasons over into the new year. And they delayed the start of others, such as basketball, which began this year in March, the month it usually ends.

There’s no denying the recovery will be a long and arduous road. That’s why, in January, Division II governance leaders voted to provide legislative relief to its three Puerto Rican members during the next five years. The schools will not be required to fulfill certain membership duties, such as paying dues and meeting sports sponsorship requirements. They will, however, be required to provide a progress report to the division at the end of each academic year.

Members of the Division II Management Council organized a collection at one of their meetings to offer to their fellow council member, Pagan-Trinidad. The faculty athletics representative in turn gave the donation to a Puerto Rico-Mayaguez staff member who he determined needed it most: a father of two whose small wooden house had been destroyed. “You don’t know how happy he was receiving this,” Pagan-Trinidad told the council later.

In the shadow of a storm, Puerto Ricans have adopted a rallying cry: “Puerto Rico se levanta.”

Puerto Rico rises.

And, as young people on the island have shown, they will play on.

“You have to keep moving forward,” Batista says, “and that’s what we did.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.