Estimates range from the hundreds of thousands to a million who will leave Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
by David Compa
The first wave of university students displaced by Hurricane Maria has arrived to study in the mainland US, taking advantage of tuition discounts offered to Puerto Rican students whose home institutions remain shuttered. “Coming here was a big relief,” says Rosamari Palerm, 23. She was the first student from Puerto Rico to arrive at St. Thomas University, a private Catholic school in Miami Gardens, Florida with over 5,000 students. The electricity, clean water and cell service available on campus — not to mention college classes — stand in stark contrast to conditions at home. Much of Puerto Rico is still without power a month after the hurricane. Water contamination is widespread. The scope of the disaster there is still not completely understood. A month ago, Palerm was in her apartment in San Juan with her parents and two older brothers sheltering from Hurricane Maria. They hunkered down in the hallway and listened to the wind crashing into the windows and walls. “The building would sway, it felt kind of like a boat,” Palerm says. When the winds died down, the apartment was largely intact. But outside, sewage water flooded the streets, the electric grid was down, and life as Palerm knew it was on hold. “I worked at a mall and the mall is completely destroyed, so I couldn’t work,” Palerm says. Classes were suspended at Sacred Heart University where Palerm was a senior biology major. She planned to graduate this academic year and apply to veterinary school, but that seemed unlikely after the hurricane. So when Palerm heard through family on the mainland that St. Thomas University was offering free room and board and tuition discounts to students displaced by the hurricane, she jumped at the chance to transfer. Palerm moved into her dorm room on the university’s gated campus two weeks ago. The grounds are full of old-growth trees, but inside her dorm room, the walls above her standard-issue bed and desk are bare. “I literally left with nothing. I just had my clothes,” Palerm says. She points to her mini-fridge, towels, and a bright yellow bedspread, fresh from Target. “All this is new,” Palerm says. “Thank God I have a credit card!” St. Thomas is one of about a