Utuado, Puerto Rico
There’s no teacher in the classroom where Josh and Abdiel Rivera spend long, often-idle days since Hurricane Maria destroyed their home. But they’re still trying to keep up with learning their vowels and multiples of 10.
Along with their mother, Glenda Ruiz, and grandmother, Rosa Rodriguez, the two brothers have been staying in a classroom at Judith Avivas Elementary since Sept. 19. The school has been converted into a privately run shelter for 103 residents whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Maria.
Their beds are lined up with their heads facing what would be the back of the class, and the possessions they managed to salvage are draped, stacked, or piled on the floor and any elevated surface. Half of Glenda Ruiz’s house is gone, and the school Josh and Abdiel normally attend in Utuado is closed.
Schools that can still operate in some capacity in Utuado aren’t open for class. That could take weeks or months, because even if a building is still standing and relatively unscathed by debris, it needs running water to open. Instead, schools are providing shelter, support, and staging areas for relief efforts.
Josh, 6, misses his 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Cubano, along with his favorite subject, art class, while Abdiel, 8, a 3rd grader, enjoys English the most. Josh tries his hand at counting to 10 in English—he gets through seven without a hitch, but skips eight. Abdiel whispers in his ear, and Josh recovers.
“I have [their] notebooks with school assignments that I can give to them,” Ruiz says through an interpreter.
Just outside the school, the ground next to the parking lot is still waterlogged. A river flowing through downtown Utuado burst its banks during the hurricane and flooded the property. A backhoe has been brought in to remove the debris, and workers are trying to clear the ground. The fence around the school has buckled and leans woozily over the main driveway. But Judith Avivas’ basketball court survived relatively well, and a few residents now staying at the shelter idly dribble a ball.
Like typical school-age kids on normal days, Josh and Abdiel don’t want to sit still. But there are very few things to do—vowels and numbers only take them so far, and they have nowhere else to go. They grab a small ball and take turns throwing it to each other and other youngsters in a courtyard. They run up a small hill, toss the ball, and then giddily plunge after it. Other children quickly join in.
In fact, the hardest part of taking care of Josh and Abdiel while in the shelter, Ruiz says, is managing their energy levels. During many recent afternoons in Utuado, there has been heavy and consistent rain as well as thunderstorms.
“They want to spend all the time outside, and I’m scared about them,” Ruiz says. “But they are kids.”
Ruiz says she has a brother in Ohio, but she hasn’t been able to make contact with him yet.
“If we get the opportunity, we will leave” for the mainland United States for work and for her children’s education, Ruiz says. At the same time, she is hopeful that she and her children will be able stay in Utuado if she can get basic services and necessities back.
Outside the building, people have hung clothes through the window slats to dry them. A girl remarks that she normally attends Judith Avivas as a student. She points up to what would otherwise be her classroom overlooking the courtyard.