With lines of communication down, locals worry about family in Puerto Rico

Students hold a prayer gathering at NFA for Puerto Rican hurricane victims on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (Claire Bessette/The Day)
Students hold a prayer gathering at NFA for Puerto Rican hurricane victims on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (Claire Bessette/The Day)

Manuel Sanchez, a senior at Norwich Free Academy, ran his finger over a map of Puerto Rico, tracing the path of the eye of Hurricane Maria and showing that his hometown of Jayuya in a mountainous region took a direct hit.

Many cellphone towers atop the mountains were knocked out, he said.

Five NFA students with family in Puerto Rico shook their heads in unison when asked if they had heard yet from their relatives. They spent much of the day Wednesday texting and receiving texts from family members saying they were okay, and then the messages stopped coming.

Senior Michelle Cemas, whose family is in the southern coastal town of Penuelas, couldn't stop sobbing. She brought a Puerto Rico flag to school Thursday and organized a prayer gathering for Puerto Rican students outside Slater Memorial Museum before school started.

About a dozen students attended, along with NFA English language interventionist Lithia Lopez, who has family in Ponce. Cemas said the prayer session helped a little, but she still worried about her grandmother, aunts, cousins and all her friends.

Yariam Martinez knows little of what could be happening at her grandmother's home in the inland town of Comerio. Martinez, who has lived in Norwich for the past eight months, returned to Puerto Rico this summer for her 15th birthday celebration. She was there during Hurricane Irma.

"Irma was bad, but I know this is worse," she said, with Lopez translating.

All the students said they have been watching coverage of the hurricane on TV, on computers and on their phones. They're finding it hard to concentrate on school work.

"I don't want to see any more," junior AJ Caraballo said. His family is in Juana Diaz and Villalba, and he doesn't know how his grandmother is doing.

NFA Diversity Director Leo Butler attended an administrators' meeting Thursday morning to make sure teachers are aware of the stress the Puerto Rican students are feeling this week.

"I know that all of them are supportive," he said of NFA teachers and staff. Lopez hasn't heard from her family, either.

"I think it's important that they talk, they cry, and I try to tell them not to look at their phones all the time. Everyone is showing a lot of compassion," said Lopez, who also is keeping in touch with NFA students who have family in Mexico City, devastated by an earthquake this week.

Butler said once communications are restored and news reports come in about cleanup needs, NFA likely will sponsor fundraisers to help Puerto Rico rebuild.

Norwich Public Schools has 141 students who were born in Puerto Rico, said Sheila Osko, English as a Second Language coordinator.

"I have asked my staff to remain vigilant and look for students who may be displaying signs of distress as this catastrophic storm unfolds," she said.

In New London, the nonprofit Centro de la Comunidad is asking for donations of money, canned goods and other nonperishables, and toiletries. They are not accepting clothing. The money will go to the Red Cross and items to the Salvation Army.

Stefanie Arcangelo, spokeswoman for the Connecticut American Red Cross, said the organization is sending 11 people from Connecticut to Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria relief efforts. Arcangelo anticipates they could be on the ground as early as Friday.

At Centro de la Comunidad, donations can be dropped off at the nonprofit's 109 Blinman St., New London, location between 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., or mailed to P.O. Box 1421. The board is having a meeting on Sunday to discuss what else it can do.

Secretary Nidia Feliciano, who is from Aguadilla, has been getting a lot of calls from people who are worried because they can't get in touch with family members. She tries to console them and tell them not to worry.

But Feliciano is concerned, especially about those living in the countryside.

"Hopefully (President Donald) Trump and the administration and everybody can help out," said Elizabeth Garcia Gonzalez, president of the board.

Gonzalez will be the justice of the peace for the wedding of Abner Lugo and Kayla Drager on Saturday, and she met with the couple on Thursday afternoon. Lugo, 20, has a grandmother, aunt, uncles and cousins in San Germán, which he and his fiancé visited in June.

"I think that's like the toughest part, is not knowing if they're OK or not, and seeing all the destruction," Lugo said.

At St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, which has many Puerto Rican parishioners, Father Mark O'Donnell said there will be a collection sometime in October for hurricane relief.

On Thursday, he spoke with two women with family in Puerto Rico who he said feel "disconnected" and "helpless" because they can't communicate with loved ones.

"We'll just have to keep praying," O'Donnell said, "knowing that somehow God will intervene for their families at this terrible time of suffering."

At St. Mary's Parish in Norwich, Father Robert Washabaugh said it's still early to tell what is needed in Puerto Rico, but that the church typically goes through Catholic Relief Services for its emergency relief efforts. On Sunday, there will be a discussion on the needs of parishioners' families.

"We're as bewildered as anybody but organizing ourselves to see what we can do," he said.

Staff writer Lindsay Boyle contributed to this report.

e.moser@theday.com

c.bessette@theday.com

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