Hundreds of Maritime students volunteer in Puerto Rico recovery

Puerto Rico Service

Wielding machetes, power tools, paint brushes and wheelbarrows, hundreds of SUNY Maritime students spent their time in Puerto Rico helping island residents continue to recover from the devastation of hurricane Maria.

The students were there with the Training Ship Empire State VI, a 565-foot vessel, on the college’s annual summer sea term. This was the first time that the students combined the summer learning experience with a service project.

“As we drove through the town, there were many buildings and land that seemed to have recovered quite well, while at the same time we spotted many houses that were still in ruins,” said senior Daniel Knowles. “Working hand in hand, sharing tools, water and shade, we SUNY students and the locals whose area had been devastated worked hard all day to clear the land.”

The Maritime volunteers were part of the first wave of students from the State University of New York to assist with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative. Thirty students from SUNY Albany and 14 from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry also participated in the projects and lived on the training ship during their time on the island.

The students participated in six projects, in towns all over Puerto Rico, returning to each site over three days. They worked hard clearing debris, restoring agriculture and repainting buildings. Approximately 240 Maritime students participated, many volunteering to work more than one of the days. Their trip is the beginning of a state-wide initiative to send hundreds of SUNY and CUNY students to Puerto Rico to assist in the recovery.

This is the second time SUNY Maritime has sent aid to Puerto Rico. The 565-foot training ship was sent by the federal government to assist with relief efforts after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico.

“We are pleased to support Governor Cuomo’s NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative. It has been nearly nine months since the T.S. Empire State VI and its crew returned home from its recovery efforts for the island, with support from SUNY and the Impact Foundation,” said SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson. “SUNY is proud of the maritime academy and its summer sea term student-cadets, as well as the students from University at Albany and SUNY-ESF, for their relief effort and the hundreds of students who will be in Puerto Rico helping support and rebuild communities working with our academic partners and our fellow citizens in these territories.”

In a small agricultural town called Toa Baja, 30 students at a time went out to clear debris, overgrown plants and fallen trees with machetes and chainsaws from an important drainage culvert. In one day, they cleared more than a mile and a half of the culvert, which during the hurricane became clogged and flooded the town. In heavy rains, the floods have continued to plague the town since the hurricane, and clearing the culvert is an important step to mitigate future flooding.

In the resort town of Humacao, they cleared debris and helped to repaint the buildings, over which the eye of the hurricane passed. The resort is a major employer in the area and has been closed since the storm. Repairing the area has been one of the initiatives spearheaded by Beatriz Rossello, the first lady of Puerto Rico. Resort employees said the students did nearly two weeks’ worth of work in the three days.

In Morovis, a town of more than 30,000 people, students worked to repair the community that is the social center of the town and has been unusable since the hurricane. Restoring the center, which hosts many local events and celebrations, restored a sense of normalcy for residents. They cleaned and painted the buildings, cleared debris, restored some of the gardens, and did carpentry repairs.

In Santa Isabel, where agriculture is one of the main contributors to the regional economy, students worked on a farm, planting, picking and packaging produce like papayas, mangoes, tomatoes and pumpkins for export. Farmers said it would have taken months for residents to accomplish what the students did in three days.

The final two projects, in Bayamon and Utuado, respectively, students cleaned up part of a state park and installed footings to rebuild a foot bridge that was destroyed in the storm. The footbridge in Utuado was the only road between two interwoven and tightly connected communities.

At each of the job sites, students said that area residents visited to thank them for their help, and occasionally provided lunch for them as well.

“My work, watch and class rotation gave me the ability to volunteer all three days. I signed up for cleanup on the first two days and for the final day I chose reconstruction,” said senior Michael Brantmeyer. “This experience was life changing and one I will remember for the rest of my life. I am very happy that we had this opportunity and I am glad we were able to help.”

SUNY Maritime’s summer sea term is a requirement for all students who are pursuing a U.S. Coast Guard license, which is required for those who want to pursue a career on marine vessels and not affiliated with military service. During summer sea term, students travel to several domestic and international ports, learning to navigate, operate and power a commercial vessel.

Shortly after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, the Empire State VI was activated by the federal government, which owns the ship, to assist in disaster relief. The ship was diverted to Florida after Hurricane Irma and then sent on to Puerto Rico to assist with Hurricane Maria recovery. The ship was deployed for about six weeks, serving as a floating hotel for disaster recovery workers. It also transported 24 pallets of supplies, donated by campuses from across SUNY, to distribute to those in need.

“Since Empire State returned from Puerto Rico in the fall, our campus community has been eager to return to the island to assist in the ongoing recovery efforts,” said Rear Adm. Michael Alfultis, SUNY Maritime College president. “We are proud that our students, and the other SUNY students, were able to work together to accomplish months’ worth of work in three days. More importantly, they helped to restore a sense of hope in these six communities."