SUNY Cortland sophomore Isabella Danisi is used to clean streets, fancy cars and nice houses in her home in Westchester County. That’s what made her recent trip to Puerto Rico so striking.
Danisi saw beat-up cars near San Juan, debris washed ashore and homes with roofs caving in on a trip to repair houses. Now she wants to help more and volunteer on other Caribbean islands hit hard by Hurricane Maria a year ago.
Danisi was one of six SUNY Cortland students who visited Puerto Rico over the summer — Danisi went from June 17 to June 30 — to help repair houses wrecked a year ago by Hurricane Maria as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative.
Danisi and other volunteers worked with non-profits All Hands and Hearts, Heart 9/11, and NECHAMA cleaning and rebuilding homes. Students were deployed for two weeks and received college credits for the work.
It’s been a year since the Category 5 storm swept through Puerto Rico. The death toll approaches 3,000 and the homes that Danisi and other SUNY Cortland students repaired are water-damaged and leaking. At the time of her trip, thousands were still without power — and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was a name nobody wanted to hear.
“Puerto Ricans don’t want to talk about FEMA, they hate it,” said Danisi — who’s ethnically Puerto Rican. “We didn’t bring it up unless they did.”
FEMA issued an internal report in July acknowledging it was understaffed and unprepared for the the crisis in Puerto Rico.
Danisi has family in Puerto Rico and knew of their struggles, so she signed up at the first opportunity. Originally Danisi wasn’t selected, but a few days before the departure date, she got an e-mail that she could go.
“So I filled out the paperwork and canceled plans — a wedding and a concert — to go,” she said.
While there, Danisi helped repair cracked walls and roofs and befriended the families she helped.
“People have tarps as a roof, which you see a lot, and if you go inside homes, everything is covered in plastic because of the water,” she said. “It’s just really sad.”
Mary Schlarb, director of the International Programs Office at SUNY Cortland, which coordinated the trip, said more than 2,000 SUNY students applied — 250 went to Puerto Rico.
“So these six students that went were a select few,” she said.
“The students learn so much in terms of professional skills but also about what they’ve been studying,” Schlarb said. They learned to navigate cultural differences, norms and expectations.
The final home Danisi worked on needed its top level removed because of water damage. She donned a mask and gloves and overcame a fear of bugs — of which there were plenty, and mice, too — and got to work.
Besides the damage, what struck Danisi most was the kindness.
The people whose homes she helped repair welcomed the students, fed them daily, treated them like family and were sad to see them go.
“It was so obvious how grateful they were,” she said. “They were all like, ‘You guys are angels, you don’t understand how long we’ve been waiting.’”