Stronger together, UMBC, Towson volleyball teams help serve up relief after hurricane in Puerto Rico

On Sept. 22, two days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in her native Puerto Rico, Krytsia Negron and the UMBC women’s volleyball team played Hartford. It was a comfortable win, 3-0, and Negron, a junior setter, finished with a match high in assists. She wanted to tell Soraya Lugo about it.

Negron has been playing volleyball since she was 4, and postgame conversations with her mother have become a ritual, as natural as an arcing pass to the net. They speak every day, or try to, so Negron, back in the Retrievers’ locker room, found her phone. Out of habit more than anything, she called Lugo. No answer. She tried again, more desperate this time. Nothing.

She had last heard from her mother two days earlier, just before noon on the day of the first Category 4 storm to hit the Caribbean island since 1932. It was a text message from Lugo: “We’re fine, but this is not looking good.”

“Of course, I knew I wasn't going to reach out” and connect with her after the Hartford match, Negron said Tuesday. Lugo was in San Juan, where flooding was waist-deep in some areas and the electrical grid was destroyed. “But how am I not going to talk to my mom right now?”

Three UMBC teammates, all Puerto Ricans themselves, sat quietly nearby and listened. A day later, three Towson players considered the bad luck of a fellow Puerto Rican they knew; she was the only one on her Iowa State volleyball team who understood that life back home had changed irrevocably. For as helpless as the seven Retrievers and Tigers felt as they watched the ruination of an island UMBC’s Carola De Jesus called “paradise,” they at least had each other. Together they could grieve. Together they could uplift.

“Even if I have to worry about them, I would rather worry about them with them and know what I can do to help out,” the Tigers’ Carola Biver said, “than just not have anyone and go through this situation alone.”

The waiting was the hardest part. Biver couldn’t sleep the night Hurricane Maria arrived. For four days, she didn’t hear from her mother. Messages she sent through her WhatsApp service were delivered but not received. Her mother was supposed to change her voicemail message to signal that she was safe. “That never happened,” Biver said.

She drifted through her days in a haze. She would go to class and see her professor talking but not hear the words. She missed a test for an online course, so hung up on what might have gone wrong — her father was supposed to be taking care of her grandmother, who couldn’t walk.

“I'm just like, ‘What is happening?’ ” she said. “I don't know anything about anyone.”

UMBC’s Ashley Ramos moved with her family to Orlando, Fla., for high school, but her grandfather remained behind. He’s 72 now, and every conversation Ramos had with her mother in the hurricane’s aftermath was fraught with possibility. If anything had happened to her grandfather, Ramos’ mother would have known first. There were uneasy talks.

“Every time she would call me, I'd be like, ‘Did you talk to him? Did you talk to him?’ ” she said. He’s safe now, and he said the house Ramos grew up in is, too. She’s not sure whether to believe him.

De Jesus, her teammate, never lost touch with her father during the storm. Through her walkie-talkie app, she could even hear the howl of the 150-plus-mph winds outside his home (“like a horror movie”). He says he’s doing fine, that he’s eating, but she knows he doesn’t want to worry her. Food is scarce, clean water has all but vanished, and most in the country eat just one meal a day.

“There's a reasonable amount of helplessness that we always feel as well because we know that whatever we're doing is never enough,” Retrievers coach Ian Blanchard said.

Disaster spared most of the players’ families and homes. Biver’s mother texted her a string of letters five days after the storm, a reassuring sign of her safety, and flew to Baltimore last weekend. Negron’s sister, calling from Spain, finally reached their mother on the phone four days after the hurricane’s landfall. She said she was OK.

UMBC’s Paola Rojas waited almost a week for a message from home. The news was good. It could’ve easily been bad. Her grandfather needed his oxygen generator to survive, and to function, it needed electricity. Somehow a generator had been found. Somehow a neighbor who owned a gas station had helped them power it.

“Every time someone said, ‘I just reached out to my family,’ it was like the best,” Negron said. “Everyone jumped and screamed, and it was like the best thing ever.”

Hurricane Maria has forced an unexpected reckoning with issues once unimaginable. Rojas stridently called for an indefinite suspension of the Jones Act, which regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and hurts Puerto Rico’s economy. De Jesus, energized and angered by President Donald Trump’s handling of the humanitarian crisis, checks Twitter for political updates regularly. “I used to never pay attention to that,” she said.

Towson’s Julymar Otero has endured the most, and faces maybe the biggest question of them all. She will graduate this spring, but her family in Toa Baja, she said, has “nothing right now.” Their homes were destroyed. Her mother’s staying in a refugee camp.

After school, “does she go back and help in the recovery efforts, or does she stay here and start her own life?” coach Don Metil wondered.

For now, the Tigers and Retrievers focus on a more pressing matter: How can we help? At Towson, the team’s Make Puerto Rico Shine Again fundraising drive last weekend raised $1,000 in donations to United for Puerto Rico, about 15 boxes of water and Gatorade and about 20 boxes of supplies. Project PRdise, a GoFundMe page started by a UMBC student and supported by the Retrievers, had raised over $6,000 as of Thursday night.

They know they are stronger together. Last Friday, with UMBC off for the night and Towson hosting Hofstra, the Retrievers’ four Puerto Ricans headed over to SECU Arena at the Tigers’ invitation. Towson’s Jocelyn Kuilan had had an idea. She remembered hearing Puerto Rico’s national anthem before matches with her youth national teams. She asked her coaches whether it might be played before “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They agreed.

The image was powerful. Standing on the Tigers’ logo in the middle of the court, a flag of their country held between them, 11 Puerto Ricans — four from Hofstra, four from UMBC, three from Towson — put their hands over their hearts as “La Borinqueña” played. It was an instrumental rendition. Those who knew the words sang them through tears anyway.

“It just made me want to have my whole family there,” Biver said. “The entire Puerto Rico, the 3.5 million people in Puerto Rico, I wanted them in that game to see what we were doing for them.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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