At first glance, there’s not a lot that connects Aransas County in Southeastern Texas to two mountainous towns in central Puerto Rico, more than 2,000 miles away. But that was before Hurricanes Harvey and Maria tore through last August and September, leaving chaos in their wake.
Now, teenagers in both places are attending schools that are not yet back at full capacity, saying goodbye to friends whose families are leaving for good, and struggling to help parents at home deal with the daily turmoil — if they have a home to return to at all.
These students in Puerto Rico and coastal Texas know firsthand that their immediate future has been irrevocably altered by the storms and the ongoing effort to rebuild their devastated communities. As to their long-term prospects, well, adulthood has arrived a lot sooner than many had anticipated.
“Kids are having to grow up a whole lot faster through this because parents are dealing with wrecked homes and insurance companies and all that,” said Molly Adams, the director of federal programs in Aransas Independent School District, where Rockport, Texas, is. “Some folks are trying to get a second and third job to get a roof, and then the kids are picking up the slack at home.”
The school district reported in December that 96 percent of its student body experienced homelessness after the storm, and officials at the school said they knew that many of their students still didn’t have permanent housing.
In the Utuado community of Caonillas, Puerto Rico, the Marta Lafontaine school, which serves kindergarten through eighth-grade students, only had partial power from generators and sporadic running water as of mid-April. The school had 128 students before Maria. That fell to 73 after the storm, according to the town’s school superintendent.
NBC News spoke with dozens of students, parents, teachers and school administrators in Texas and Puerto Rico who are still grappling with recovery more than seven months after the hurricanes hit. Their stories revealed kids living with persistent anxiety, families struggling with homelessness, and teachers seriously worried about their students’ futures.
Teens on edge
ROCKPORT, Texas — Before Hurricane Harvey struck his hometown on the Gulf Coast, Ethan Dreyer was a promising 17-year-old offensive lineman entering his junior year of high school.
But then on Aug. 26, Rockport experienced six hours of 131 mph winds, with gusts topping out at 151 mph. Around 80 percent of the structures in Aransas County were damaged, and approximately 35 percent were destroyed.
While mudslides triggered by the heavy rain from Maria sent some homes in Puerto Rico careening down mountainsides, the force of Harvey’s winds simply flattened buildings in this coastal plains region.
One of those buildings was Ethan’s home, a three-bedroom rental paid for by his single mom. Now more than eight months later, with the county facing an exponential growth in housing demands because of the storm, rental prices have skyrocketed and his family still hasn’t found a place to live.
Ethan has lost more than 50 pounds since he lost his house, which made for a difficult football season. And now his family, which includes his two brothers and a sister, is split between four different homes. He lives with a friend’s family, while his mom hopes to find them a home — a near futile effort in Aransas County, where broken window panes, busted refrigerators, mildewed drywall and the discarded belongings of once secure lives still litter the streets.
“It makes you pretty anxious,” Ethan said, “just trying to get somewhere, live somewhere. It’s just been tiring and stressful.”
His mom, Brandi Dreyer, is living in San Antonio now, more than 150 miles away, with his 9-year-old sister, who’s beginning to have trouble in school. Brandi Dreyer has gone from working as a property manager to cleaning homes to make ends meet. She now qualifies for Section 8 federally funded housing, but that no longer exists in Aransas County because the storm destroyed all such apartments.
“We left a town one way and we came back and it’s completely — it’s just gone,” Brandi Dreyer said as she sat inside the office of her son’s high school. “And I get so angry with myself, ‘Why are you fighting to stay in something that is not even the same?’ But it’s this building that’s the same to [my children]. They have kids they’ve been in school with since kindergarten. That’s normal to them, and I want them to have that.”
The town and schools are a constant reminder of a storm that robbed Dreyer and her children of stability they once knew.
“It never dawned on me before, but I am homeless,” she said while wiping tears from her eyes. “For the first time in 36 years I am [homeless] and only because Mother Nature is a bitch.”
CAYEY, Puerto Rico — Génesis Cruz has heard her mother’s sobs behind a closed bedroom door. Three times, her mother, depressed from the loss of the family’s home to a fire and living without electricity or water months after Hurricane Maria, had threatened suicide.
“I told her not to give up, because even though I’m the only one living here because [my siblings] live in the United States, she has to keep in mind that she still needs to take care of me,” Cruz, 18, said. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to do but, well, I try to help her.”
A senior in high school, Cruz carries the weight of misery that Hurricane Maria heaped on her and many of Puerto Rico’s schoolchildren when it hit the island Sept. 20 with winds of 155 mph and extremely heavy rainfall that produced major to catastrophic flooding.
The hurricane forced the youths into a struggle for survival and challenged them to endure trying circumstances. They are living through their families’ scramble for secure housing and basic needs, the absence of close friends who moved to the mainland and the loss of electric power and cell phone signals.
Educators say they have seen schoolchildren appear to adjust more easily and quickly than adults to the still difficult conditions in Puerto Rico.
“Adults are actually likely to underreport child mental health distress,” said Lori Peek, sociology professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder and author of “Children of Katrina.”
“One of the big things we found is that children were actively hiding their distress from their parents because they knew that their parents were stressed out,” Peek said. “The children were actually saying: ‘I didn’t want to be a burden for my parents.’”
Before the storm, David Castillo — who played football and basketball and ran track — was encouraged by his teachers to go to college. They reminded him of his intelligence. After all, he’d taken so many advanced classes that he only had to attend half days his last semester of high school.
“I was debating on going to college and I wanted to pursue a teaching degree,” said Castillo, 18. “I’ve been on the ropes with that for a while, and I finally decided I don’t want to go.”
That decision is due, in large part, to Hurricane Harvey. His father worked as a painter for contractors in the area, and Castillo decided to pick up whatever tools he could find to help after the storm. He discovered that rebuilding homes was enough for him.
As he walked around his parents home — a borrowed trailer — picking through his belongings that have barely escaped the plastic containers he’s kept them in since Harvey, Castillo said that owning property might provide the security he now desires.
“My plan’s just to move out at the end of summer, work and save up and buy my own place,” he said. “I want to be a working-class citizen and pay my taxes, go to the local shops and have my piece of land. That’s it.”
And that land needs to be in Rockport, Castillo said. He wants to rebuild his hometown, and highlight the parts of it that he still loves.
But not everyone has as rosy a picture of Rockport, and some are looking forward to an imminent departure. The effects on schoolchildren have been drastic, but it hasn’t been great for teachers, administrators and staff either — many of whom said they were looking forward to the end of the school year.
Blake Mieth, 18, is looking forward to the fall, when he will attend Texas State University, and his mom, an assistant principal, has pressured him to apply for as many scholarships as possible because she and her husband had to spend their savings repairing their home.
“Everything that happened has gone the opposite of what I thought my senior year would be,” said Mieth, who shared his room with his parents, brother and a couple of pets for months. “I thought it’d just be football games and pep rallies, you know?”
Cruz, the high school senior in Cayey, smiles as she remembers the fun of participating in the school ritual of riding in a caravana in August. Following the tradition of schools in Puerto Rico, exiting seniors welcomed their successors with a religious blessing.
Photos show her and her best friend wearing paper headbands across their foreheads and red shirts while they mugged for snapshots, a few arranged neatly in a collage on her bedroom wall.
But instead of the fun that the caravana promised, much of Cruz’s final year has been marked by the tribulations from one of the most devastating hurricanes on record for Puerto Rico.
Her best friend moved to the mainland. Cruz also started working as a cashier in a Chinese restaurant a month after the hurricane to help out her mother. But her high school teachers increased the classwork after the hurricane because students were behind, making it harder for Cruz to balance school and her job. At one point, she told her mother she wanted to quit school to work full time. Her mother urged her not to and her boss adjusted her work hours.
“Sometimes I work at night and arrive [home] tired and such and I can’t do my assignments or anything. Sometimes, we don’t have [cell] signal and all the assignments require Internet,” Cruz said.
Peek, the sociology professor, recalls similar stories from New Orleans. “We had one little boy in our study after Katrina, he got his first job after the storm at Wendy’s because his little sister hadn’t had birthday presents or Christmas presents for three or four years,” she said.
“Kids were taking on additional responsibilities in order to address many of the additional burdens the disaster placed on the families. I intentionally say ‘additional burdens’ because, in Puerto Rico and Texas, as in New Orleans, many of these families were obviously struggling before the storms,” Peek added. “Disasters often amplify pre-existing vulnerabilities.”
In Puerto Rico, the recovery time the schools are giving students might not be enough for high school seniors who will be graduating in June. There are fears they might not be fully college-ready because of missed or shortened classes and reduced daylight hours for studying, as well as the added responsibilities they’ve taken on as their families have faced tough times.
“The greatest worry is with the older students [who] are going to enter college now,” said Elín Cintrón González, superintendent of schools in the Utuado region. “They are leaving now but they are not prepared for a university like we have done in the past.”
Teachers under strain
Administrators and teachers in Aransas Independent School District have faced greater disciplinary problems with kids who had never caused trouble before. Fights have broken out, and many students just appear on edge, school officials said.
“There’s definitely been some anxiety issues since Harvey with kids who experienced homelessness or who lost their homes,” said Tonia Ramaker, the nurse at Fulton Learning Center and the coordinator of health services for the district.
It hasn’t helped that after more than six months, the destruction of the storm is still very visible and a daily struggle for those who have to deal with it. Blue tarp functions as roofing for many in the area, and some people on the outskirts of Rockport live in tents or in a single room of their destroyed house.
The schools are doing the best they can to accommodate for the issues caused by the storm, but there’s no escaping them.
“We don’t know all the stress that these kids are going through. And not all of them want to share that,” said Rhonda Mieth, an assistant principal at the Rockport-Fulton High School. “Teachers are doing their best to read the kids, but we’re seeing some issues. It’s compounded though because our teachers are going through so much. It’s been a really tough year.”
“You deal with it at school, you deal with it at home and there’s really no opportunity to get away from it at all,” she added, beginning to choke up as she sat behind her desk.
María Zayas, a physical education teacher at a school near Cayey in Salinas, said elementary schoolchildren pepper her with questions about life after the hurricane and are more straightforward about their circumstances.
“They say ‘I don’t have a house. There’s no power. I would like to eat chicken but we don’t have any. We don’t have any because we don’t have any way to [refrigerate] it,” Zayas said. “They have a lot of fear, many questions about what we are going to do?”
In Utuado, science teacher Maribel Jiménez Rivera became emotional when she recalled an eighth-grade student coming to her when she learned her parents were thinking of moving to the mainland. The student’s parents had lost their jobs. Their home had no roof and the student’s mother wanted to leave the island.
The student didn’t want to leave and “had this feeling of ‘damn, I lost everything and now you want to take me out of here, too,’” Jiménez Rivera said.
She advised the young girl to talk to her parents and later noticed that the anxiety she’d seen in the girl’s demeanor was replaced by maturity and confidence.
“We have to teach them to overcome these situations so they can grow and mature because that’s how we become better human beings. Wherever you go you will always face problems and natural disasters and we have no other choice but to deal with them,” Jiménez Rivera said.
Throughout her research, Peek found that most of the post-disaster decisions are made by adults for adults — leaving children out of post-recovery conversations, for the most part.
“Whether children are saying ‘don’t take me to this place or take me to this place,’ I think the broader point that is really important is that children express these feelings to their parents — and they will have an influence on the decision making that adults are going to make,” she said.
Homes in ruins
Because of the amount of damage Hurricane Harvey caused to the Texas coast, the landfills ran out of room. As a temporary fix, debris that measures 10 to 20 feet high continues to pile on the grassy median between the north and southbound lanes for seven miles of the 31 mile strip of Texas State Highway 35 between Corpus Christi and Rockport.
The objects that made up people’s lives here now sit in that rubbish pile known as “Mount Trashmore.” The debris piles display the sheer destruction of entire homes and properties in a county where nearly 20 percent of people lived in poverty prior to the storm.
“The people here struggled already before the storm, but then Harvey just took everything out from under them,” said Kathryn Patterson, who is a guidance counselor for fourth and fifth graders at Fulton Learning Center. “Housing was already an issue and they were barely making it. Now that’s still the case and everything they had is gone, too.”
David Castillo, the teen who is forgoing college to stay in Rockport, said his mom cried when they returned to their Section 8 apartment and found it obliterated. The front door of his car fell off when he tried to open it. He’d worked and saved up for months to buy it, he said.
His dad maintained that they would be fine but carried a frozen expression, Castillo said, “like he dared you to question it.”
They moved into a friend’s trailer, which miraculously hadn’t been damaged by the gnarled live oaks that collapsed around it. The owner of the trailer left town for a while and they aren’t sure when he’ll be back — or where they’ll live next. Housing has become too expensive.
At Burgos High, Allana Rivera and Chelsea Núñez López giggle like the 16-year-old schoolgirls they are while explaining the inconveniences they live with now.
Rivera says she now reaches for a dictionary or a volume of her mom’s old encyclopedias for homework research that she used to do on the Internet. In the mornings, if she forgoes some sleep, she can heat water on the gas stove so she’ll have a warm bath. But if she wants to sleep in, then she has to endure the shock of the freezing water, which is all that comes from the faucet because, without power, the water heater doesn’t work.
As they chatter more about their post-hurricane days, the girls reveal they are dealing with far tougher issues.
“It’s difficult because right now, I’m not in my house because they are repairing it,” Rivera said. “I had to move to another house.”
The river that flowed at the bottom of the mountainside adjacent to homes in her neighborhood of Jájome Bajo swelled and flooded Rivera’s home and carried away belongings. Maria’s winds that topped 150 miles per hour at landfall carried off part of her home’s roof.
After school, which ends at 3 p.m., the bus leaves Rivera at her hurricane-whipped home, where she stays during the remaining daylight hours to help with repairs.
In Jájome Bajo, about 15 miles north of Salinas, poles and cables are still on the ground or lean across roads. Some homes have blue tarps, others are reduced to wooden frames or the concrete slabs that were their foundations. Luckier than some, the community has running water, but it flows sporadically. Some residents have limited use of generators.
“After 5 [in the evening], I go to my other house, and then I can change and bathe,” Rivera said. “That’s why I do most things at school because, at home, I have no time.”
Núñez López confessed that the girls “can’t always be thinking about these things,” referring to the conditions and slow recovery.
“We have to remain positive and move forward because if you let yourself get caught up in those thoughts,” Núñez López said. “Then, we wouldn’t study at all,” said Rivera, jumping in to finish her friend’s thought.
That attitude may be defining of a generation growing up amid hurricane recovery.
“This is the future of children. They are coming of age in a more turbulent world,” Peek said. “Right now, being able to follow kids in the long term to understand how a disaster has really unfolded in their lives is definitely where we need more focused and long term attention.”
Phil McCausland reported from Texas. Suzanne Gamboa and Nicole Acevedo reported from Puerto Rico.