Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the amount of time Victor Salas-Pellot served in the Air Force.
Going to law school is hard. Going to law school after a devastating hurricane is a scale of magnitude harder.
In the weeks and months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico last year, the Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Law and its tight-knit group of student veterans had to improvise.
The school closed for about a month after the hurricane and later had to extend the semester to make up for lost time. When the school eventually opened again ― with no power or water and an island-wide curfew ― classes started earlier in the day to take advantage of daylight, with open doors and windows in lieu of air conditioning.
Some days the generators worked; other days they didn’t. Students who lived in more rural areas couldn’t get to school because of bad roads, and many didn’t have internet access to watch the lectures their professors put online.
“It was like school in a third-world country for a while,” said William Cruz, a third-year law student and a lieutenant in the Navy reserves. “We’d go to school, and the majority of the time, there’d be no power.”
There were many nights Cruz had to study by flashlight and days he couldn’t make it to class because gas was scarce — and expensive. He didn’t get power back for six months after the hurricane and, as of a mid-July interview with Military Times, the power in his area was still weak.
“We lose power daily because of that — every day. It’s normal. We have rolling blackouts every day. Every day,” he said.
It’s now been a year since Maria made landfall, leading to the longest-ever blackout in U.S. history and nearly 3,000 deaths in the six months afterward, according to a recent George Washington University study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government.
Classes at the university have started again and life has settled into a new normal. But for Cruz and his classmates — and so many other Puerto Rican residents — the devastation is still taking its toll.
A ‘zombie apocalypse’
Victor Salas-Pellot, born in Kansas to Puerto Rican parents, had recently moved to the island to study law after serving nearly 10 years in the Air Force. Maria was his first hurricane, and it was unlike anything he’d experienced in his military career, he said.
“The damage that I saw was immense,” he said. “Power was out, at least in my area, for at least five months. It was a constant daily endeavor to find water to shower with.”
Salas-Pellot, a single dad, remembers collecting water in buckets from a nearby river. Water and other supplies from the mainland were stuck at the port, he said.
He wanted to volunteer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, but no one seemed to know how he could help and never called him back, despite his military credentials. And President Donald Trump’s visit, during which the president was famously photographed throwing paper towels into a crowd, only caused more mayhem, he said.
“It was just frustrating to see it go down in a U.S. territory the way it did,” he said. “It was little-to-no help, from what I perceived as a citizen.”
In recent tweets, Trump has fought back against criticism of his administration’s response to the storm, saying he loves Puerto Rico and has raised billions of dollars to help with recovery efforts. He has also disputed the official death toll, accusing Democrats of inflating the numbers.
The veterans who spoke to Military Times witnessed much chaos from the storm and its aftermath.
“After a week, the people of Puerto Rico started going crazy. There was no gas, there was no water, everything was going crazy,” said Cruz, who said he was activated via the only working radio station in Puerto Rico after the storm and served as a messenger between the military and federal agencies while traditional communications were down. “If you needed to go to the grocery stores, you would have to prepare yourself mentally that you were going to be there maybe eight, 10, 12 hours — and that’s on a lucky day.”
Cruz said the island became very dangerous, with looting and riots becoming commonplace. “It was like a zombie apocalypse; no joke.”
The crime has become so bad that Navy veteran Ian Hurtado, another Inter American University law student, who lived in Bayamón when Maria hit, had to move out of his home to a new city.
Shootings, mostly gang-related, happen almost every night, he said. According to a report by the Spanish-language TV news station Telemundo last October, a man was found dead, dismembered and left in the street, just around the corner from where Hurtado lived. He also heard from the cable company that it could not restore internet or cable because people were stealing the company’s generators.
Hurtado is still mourning the loss of his dog, who died in the hurricane’s aftermath, but he said he’s much happier now in Dorado, his new home. Still, the New York native said life in Puerto Rico, which he chose for the appeal of going to law school in the tropics, has not turned out at all like he expected.
Back to school, but not back to normal
“For us in the military, we prepare really good. But nobody was prepared for this,” said Cruz.
These days, Cruz is pretty strapped for cash after a year of fueling generators and replacing spoiled food after blackouts. He can no longer live on the GI Bill housing stipend alone.
“I was able to focus 100 percent on law school. This year, it’s going to be more like 60 percent law school, because I have to work. I will have to manage my time to do both,” he said. “There’s no other way.”
The 2018 semester started in August, and though the lights are back on and the weather has been good, comparatively, school enrollment is down. Many haven’t been able to return, said Jorge Rivera, faculty advisor for the law school’s Student Veterans of America chapter; others have left the island all together.
“Right now our universities all (over) the island received a big impact in enrollment," Rivera said. “Some students, they don’t want to continue in harsh conditions, and they go back to relatives in the States.”
Rivera has kept tabs on all the student veterans' situations and has helped those in dire straits get showers, food, financial help and referrals for psychological help with outside organizations.
“In Puerto Rico, (there are) too many people that need help right now," said Rivera, whose own mother died recently from health complications after months of no power. “We tried to stand up, to stand strong and to look for the future."
“The students at our school, they suffered a lot,” Cruz said. “We just came together as a small family, and we helped each other out. That’s the best we can do. It’s something I have no way to describe. If you have not lived this, there’s no ways to describe it.”
And despite his frustrations with the government over how things were handled, Salas-Pellot knew the importance of staying calm. After all, things could’ve been worse — like that time he was under fire during a conflict in Kosovo.
“I felt I kept myself very composed,” he said. “I think just in general, any veteran can say in a situation like this they keep themselves grounded more than their civilian counterparts who have never experienced what the military has to offer.”
And the way his fellow veterans, especially those in the Reserves who were activated during the fall semester, continued to persevere in their schooling through it all was inspiring, he said.
“We survived,” he said. “Thank God.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.