hurricane winds

The Island

Voices from the Future | Glorynel Ojeda Matos

The Island

The Event: Maria began as a tropical wave. But by September 16, 2017, she had gathered steam, swirling into a tropical storm east of the Lesser Antilles. From there, she roared. On September 20, Maria screamed over Puerto Rico with winds that reached 155 miles per hour, making her a category four hurricane, and one that would nearly decimate the island.

Glorynel Ojeda Matos is a scholar. A researcher. A student of sustainability. She’s also Puerto Rican. And when hurricanes ravaged her island home in the fall of 2017, she knew it would never be the same.

“Hurricane Maria happened in September, but before that, we had Irma,” Ojeda Matos says. “It left so many people without electricity, so it helped us to be more prepared. We knew we’d have to count on the generator. We were close to water, but we needed water. We knew that if Maria were to hit, we would say, ‘OK. This will be worse than what happened with Irma.’”

And it was. Although Irma caused some damage to the island, Maria debilitated it. “It hit the island really hard,” Ojeda Matos remembers. “When we opened the door the next morning, everything was destroyed. Totally. All of the vegetation. The streets were closed. The electrical grid was down. I grew up in Puerto Rico, so I’ve seen hurricanes my whole life. But I’ve never seen anything like Maria.”

The emergency response was slow, aid from the government more so. According to Federal Emergency Management Agency documents, 1.6 million meals were delivered to Puerto Rico nine days after Maria. Shy of 3 million liters of water were delivered, along with 5,000 tarps. By comparison, victims of Hurricane Harvey received 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water and 20,000 tarps nine days after the storm. Puerto Rico suffered. And Ojeda Matos and her family had a decision to make.
They had sheltered in their home during the storm. It sustained some damage, but by comparison to other houses on the island, it could have been much, much worse.
“The first day, the second, the third, we were just trying to get out of the house,” she says. “Nature, trees, everything was in the middle of the street. So, the people and the communities were working together to try to move everything. Then, we had food at home, but a week or two weeks after, the supplies weren’t still there. Most of them were destroyed. And the flow of food in the port was stopping. Two weeks later, we were thinking, ‘What do we do now?’”

Later that fall, Ojeda Matos and her husband decided to move themselves and their one-year-old daughter to Arizona.

“We were looking for opportunities to move out of the island, because we knew nothing was improving,” she says. “We never saw FEMA. We never saw the local government. We were working a lot, really helping each other in the community. Also, we knew that other people were without electricity for almost a year. That could be our worst case. We got electricity back just two weeks before we moved to Arizona. So, that was part of it. In October, November, like a month and a half after the hurricane, we knew it could be worse and worse, so we started to look for opportunities, and that’s when I applied to Arizona State University.”

They moved in March 2018. Now, Ojeda Matos is a Ph.D. student in the School of Sustainability, focused on green infrastructure, behavioral change and collaborations to drive sustainable strategies. And, she’s looking to the future — particularly as it relates to water — because she knows tha
t climate change is here, and climate change is real.

“I’m trying to do a study about water management in Puerto Rico,” she says. “I really understand what people went through there. I know that, without water, we can’t do anything. We know that we have water — we’re a tropical island — but but we have to learn how to manage that water.”

Moreover, Ojeda Matos’ experience with Hurricane Maria inspired her to change the way she approaches the everyday.

“I think we have to live in the moment, you know?” she says. “We have to focus on right now. But my experience has helped me prepare for the future, to plan. Maria was part of that breakthrough.”

— Kelly Vaughn