Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Island of Sorrow

This powerful article tells the story of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria through the eyes of 15-year-old Salvador Gómez-Colón, who took extraordinary measures to help his community after the storm. 

By Kristin Lewis
From the September 2018 Issue

Learning Objective: to explain how the idea that anyone can make a difference is supported in the article

Lexiles: 930L, 800L
Other Key Skills: tone, author’s craft, text structure, inference, central ideas and details, text evidence

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As you read the article, study the images, and watch the video, think about what obstacles Puerto Rico faces in its recovery. 

Everywhere 15-year-old Salvador Gómez-Colón looked, he saw only destruction and hopelessness.

It was strange for Salvador to think about how just a few days earlier he had been living a happy life in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean Sea. He went to school and swim practice and loved wandering through the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, taking photographs of the beautiful churches and bright turquoise and pink houses that had stood for centuries. He spent hot afternoons in the refreshing shade at the park by his apartment, where kids rode bikes and tossed balls beneath the thick canopy of trees.

But now, that life was gone.

The day before—September 20, 2017—Hurricane Maria had torn across the island. To Salvador, it looked like an atomic bomb had been dropped. The streets were a tangle of fallen power lines, wrecked cars, and collapsed buildings. Homes were flooded with debris-filled water. Nearly every tree in Salvador’s beloved park had been snapped in half or ripped from the ground.

Puerto Rico was in ruins. There was no electricity. No cell phone service. No internet. No way to contact loved ones and find out if they were OK.

That evening, Salvador watched the golden sun sink below the horizon and darkness envelop the island. A feeling of hopelessness crept over him. He imagined families in the pitch-black night stumbling around the broken shells of their homes. What if they fell and hurt themselves? With hospitals barely functioning—if at all—and no way to call for help, what would happen to people?

“To me, that sun setting was hope leaving,” Salvador says.

But what could he do?

Everywhere 15-year-old Salvador Gómez- Colón looked, he saw ruin and hopelessness.

Just days before, Salvador had been living a happy life in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean Sea. He went to school and swim practice. He walked through the streets of Old San Juan, taking pictures of the beautiful churches and bright turquoise and pink houses that had stood for centuries. He spent hot afternoons in the park near his home.

But now, that life was gone.

The day before—September 20, 2017—Hurricane Maria had hit the island. To Salvador, it looked like an atomic bomb had been dropped. The streets were filled with fallen power lines, wrecked cars, and collapsed buildings. Homes were flooded with dirty water. Trees had been snapped in half or ripped from the ground.

Puerto Rico was in ruins. There was no electricity, no lights, no cell phone service, no internet—no way to contact loved ones and find out if they were OK.

That evening, as the sun set, Salvador watched the island go dark. A feeling of hopelessness crept over him. He imagined people in the pitch-black night stumbling around the broken shells of their homes. What if they fell? With hospitals barely operating and no way to call for help, what would happen to them?

“To me, that sun setting was hope leaving,” Salvador says.

But what could he do?

John and Tina Reid/Getty Images

San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, is famous for its beautiful beaches and colorful buildings.    

Ricardo Arduengo/AP Images for Scholastic, Inc

Salvador Gómez-Colón

A Unique Place

Puerto Rico, which is about 1,000 miles southeast of Florida, has long been famous for its beauty and vibrancy. The island is part of the U.S. but is not a state. It is what is known as a “territory.” Puerto Ricans are American citizens. They follow U.S. laws and elect members of their own government, but they cannot vote in presidential elections. In Congress, they have one representative, who cannot vote on laws.

One of the island’s main industries is tourism; millions of visitors flock to Puerto Rico every year to enjoy the sandy beaches, sweeping mountains, and lush rainforests. You’ll hear Spanish spoken on every part of the island—it’s the primary language. San Juan, where Salvador lives, is the largest city. It’s a place where you can eat mouthwatering tostones and empanadas and watch the locals dance in the streets to live music. 

In Puerto Rico, hurricanes have always been a problem. The Caribbean Sea is prone to turbulent weather. But in the days leading up to Hurricane Maria, Salvador, like many, sensed that this storm would be different. He listened anxiously to news reports about the storm as it heaved across the Atlantic Ocean. Meteorologists predicted that Maria was going to be worse than anything the island had seen in 80 years.

They were right.

Puerto Rico is about 1,000 miles southeast of Florida. The island is famous for its beauty. It’s part of the U.S. but is not a state. It is what is known as a “territory.” Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. They follow U.S. laws and elect members of their own government, but they cannot vote in presidential elections. In Congress, they have one representative, who cannot vote on laws.

One of the island’s main industries is tourism. Millions of people visit Puerto Rico every year to enjoy the sandy beaches, sweeping mountains, and lush rainforests. You’ll hear Spanish spoken in every part of the island—it’s the primary language. San Juan, where Salvador lives, is the largest city. It’s a place where you can eat delicious tostones and empanadas and watch the locals dance in the streets to live music.

Hurricanes have always been a problem for Puerto Rico; the Caribbean Sea is prone to stormy weather. But in the days leading up to Hurricane Maria, many people sensed that this storm would be different. Salvador listened to news reports about the storm as it came closer. Meteorologists predicted that Maria was going to be worse than anything the island had seen in 80 years.

They were right.

The Hurricane’s Wrath

As weather predictions grew increasingly dire, thousands rushed to the airport, buying seats on any flight off the island they could get. Some 4,000 others were evacuated to shelters. But like most of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million inhabitants, Salvador and his family chose to hunker down at home. They lived in a sturdy building, where they thought they’d be safe.

Still, they made preparations. They stocked up on water, food, and gas for their car. Nothing could have prepared them for Maria’s wrath though.

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico just past 6 a.m. The storm stretched nearly 60 miles across—four times the length of Manhattan. It moved at a snail’s pace—10 miles per hour. That meant its fury lingered over the island for 12 agonizing hours.

The winds blasted across the island at more than 150 miles per hour, snapping trees and telephone poles. Roofs were torn away. Windows were shattered. Tree trunks were launched through the air like missiles.

The storm dropped more rain than Puerto Rico usually gets in six months. The deluge swelled rivers and canals, sending water gushing into neighborhoods and bursting a dam. Seawater from the Caribbean engulfed beaches and churned into coastal cities and villages. According to one survivor, houses looked like islands in a muddy lake.

Meanwhile, hillsides became waterlogged. Large chunks of mud careened down from the mountains, burying cars and smashing homes. Dozens died in the storm. Thousands more died in the following weeks and months.

Salvador and his mom, grandparents, and two stepsisters tried to wait out the storm in their eighth-floor apartment. But when the gushing rainwater began to flow into their apartment and the wind threatened to shatter the windows, they knew they needed to get out. Eventually, they found shelter in a tiny room on the ground floor, along with a few neighbors.

They were trapped there for hours, listening to the violent wind outside rip their world to shreds.

And then, at last, the skies cleared. 

As the weather predictions grew worse, thousands rushed to the airport, buying seats on any flight off the island they could get. Some 4,000 others went to shelters. But like most of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million people, Salvador and his family chose to stay home. They lived in a sturdy building, where they thought they’d be safe.

Still, they made preparations. They stocked up on water, food, and gas for their car.

But nothing could have prepared them for Maria’s wrath.

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico at just past 6 a.m. The storm stretched nearly 60 miles across—four times the length of Manhattan. It moved at a snail’s pace—10 miles per hour. That meant it hung over the island for 12 terrible hours.

The winds blew across the island at more than 150 miles per hour. They snapped trees and telephone poles. Roofs were torn away. Windows shattered. Tree trunks flew through the air. The storm dropped more rain than Puerto Rico usually gets in six months. The deluge swelled rivers and canals, sending water gushing into neighborhoods and bursting a dam. Seawater from the Caribbean churned into coastal cities and villages. According to one survivor, houses looked like islands in a muddy lake.

Meanwhile, hillsides became waterlogged. Large chunks of mud careened down from the mountains, burying cars and smashing homes. Dozens of people died in the storm. Thousands more died in the following weeks and months.

Salvador and his mother, grandparents, and two stepsisters tried to wait out the storm in their eighth-floor apartment. But when rainwater began to flow into their apartment and the wind seemed like it would shatter the windows, they knew they needed to get out.

They found shelter in a tiny room on the ground floor, along with some neighbors.

They were trapped there for hours. The wind was deafening. It sounded as though the city was being bombed.

And then, at last, the skies cleared.

Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

This photograph was taken a day after the hurricane in Cataño, about 8 miles from San Juan.

State of Crisis

Cleaning up after a hurricane of Maria’s magnitude would have been daunting for any community. But there were special challenges in Puerto Rico, which has high levels of unemployment and poverty. At the time of the hurricane, Puerto Rico was bankrupt, its economy failing. Much of the island’s infrastructure was ancient and in disrepair. The power grid—that is, the network of power plants that produce electricity and all the power lines that carry that electricity to people—hadn’t been upgraded in decades.

The island had stood little chance against the force of Hurricane Maria.

After the storm, there was virtually no power on the island. Refrigerators and freezers stopped humming, and the food inside rotted. Gas pumps didn’t work, so cars and trucks couldn’t be refueled. ATMs became useless, so nobody could get cash. Without electricity, hospitals had to run on generators, but many generators had been ruined by the storm. Many patients died because the machines keeping them alive no longer worked.

Then there was the problem of water. Without power, water could not be pumped to people’s faucets. Toilets could not be flushed. Sewers stopped working, and human waste flowed through waterways.

In the days after the storm, Salvador had many questions. When would school reopen? When would power be restored? When would phones work? With no food lining grocery store shelves, how would his family eat after their food ran out? What would happen if he were to have an asthma attack? With hospitals barely functioning and no open pharmacies, what would he do?

Still, Salvador felt grateful that he and his family were alive, and that their apartment, though damaged, was safe to live in. He began listening to reports on his grandfather’s radio about what was going on across the rest of the island. He heard stories of destroyed villages and of families losing all their belongings. There were stories of people who had no food to eat and no water to drink. Hundreds were dying because they could not get the help they needed.

“We were in a state of crisis,” Salvador remembers. “I thought, at least I am safe here, but just imagine people who live in wooden homes or have zinc [a light metal] roofs—which would be the first to blow off. It was scary thinking about what other people were going through.”

Salvador could only wonder: With so much destruction, how long would it take Puerto Rico to recover? Would it recover at all?

Every time the sun set, that same creeping hopelessness returned to him . . . until one night, Salvador had had enough.

He would not surrender to despair.

He would do something.

Cleaning up after a hurricane of Maria’s magnitude would have been daunting for any community. But there were special challenges in Puerto Rico. The island has high levels of poverty. At the time of the hurricane, Puerto Rico was bankrupt. Much of the island’s infrastructure was extremely old and didn’t work well. The power grid (the network of power plants that produce electricity and all the power lines that carry that electricity to people) had not been upgraded in decades.

The island had stood little chance against the storm.

After the storm, there was virtually no power on the island. Refrigerators and freezers stopped humming, and the food inside rotted. Gas pumps didn’t work, so cars and trucks couldn’t be refueled. ATMs became useless, so no one could get cash. Without electricity, hospitals had to run on generators, but many generators had been ruined by the storm. Many patients died because the machines keeping them alive no longer worked.

Then there was the problem of water. Without power, water could not be pumped to people’s faucets. Toilets could not be flushed. Sewers stopped working. Human waste flowed through waterways.

In the days after the storm, Salvador had many questions. When would school reopen? When would power be restored? When would phones work? With no food in grocery stores, how would his family eat after their food ran out? What would happen if he were to have an asthma attack? With hospitals barely operating and no open pharmacies, what would he do?

Still, Salvador felt lucky. He and his family were alive, and their apartment, though damaged, was safe to live in. He began listening to reports on the radio about what was going on across the rest of the island. He heard stories of destroyed villages and of families losing all their belongings. There were stories of people who had no food to eat and no water to drink. Hundreds were dying because they could not get the help they needed.

“We were in a state of crisis,” Salvador says. “I thought, at least I am safe here, but just imagine people who live in wooden homes or have zinc [a light metal] roofs—which would be the first to blow off. It was scary thinking about what other people were going through.”

Salvador could only wonder: With so much destruction, how long would it take Puerto Rico to recover? Would it recover at all?

Every time the sun set, that same creeping hopelessness returned to him. But then one night, Salvador had had enough.

He would not let himself feel helpless.

He would do something.

Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Loíza, one of the towns hardest hit by Hurricane Maria

A Bold Idea

Salvador thought about two of the biggest problems people in the most devastated areas were facing: living without lights and having no way to keep their clothes clean. He realized that two items could restore some measure of hope and dignity to them.

First, a solar lamp. Solar lamps don’t run on electricity. Instead, they are charged by sunlight. With solar lamps, people without power could have some light at night.

Second, a hand-operated washing machine. Like solar lamps, these washing machines don’t require electricity. After the storm, many people had nothing to wear but the clothes on their backs, which had become contaminated by the floodwaters. Salvador knew that with no way to wash clothes, disease would begin to take hold.

Salvador wanted to find a way to get these lamps and washing machines into the hands of those who needed them most. When he told his mom what he wanted to do, her response was simple: You must do it, but you can’t give up. You must finish what you start.

Salvador decided to create a crowdfunding webpage to raise money. Soon donations were pouring in from all over the world.

But the logistics of buying and shipping lamps and washing machines proved to be a huge challenge. Puerto Rico’s ports were backed up with ships. Roads to devastated communities were littered with debris. Yet Salvador refused to give up. Even when his school reopened a few weeks after the hurricane, he kept working—sending texts and making calls, dealing with constant interruptions in power and cell service.

“I was like, wait a second, I’m doing algebra and there are people dying a few miles from me,” he remembers.

Salvador thought about two of the biggest problems facing people in the most devastated areas: living without lights and having no way to keep their clothes clean. He realized that two items could restore some hope and dignity to them.

First, a solar lamp. Solar lamps don’t run on electricity. Instead, they are charged by sunlight. With solar lamps, people without power could have some light at night.

Second, a hand-operated washing machine. Like solar lamps, these washing machines don’t require electricity. Many people had nothing to wear but the clothes on their backs, which had become contaminated by the floodwaters. Salvador knew that with no way to wash clothes, diseases would spread.

Salvador wanted to find a way to get these lamps and washing machines to those who needed them most. When he told his mom what he wanted to do, her response was simple: You must do it. But you can’t give up. You must finish what you start.

Salvador decided to create a crowdsourcing webpage to raise money. Before long, donations were pouring in from all over the world.

But the logistics of buying and shipping lamps and washing machines were a big challenge. Puerto Rico’s ports were backed up with ships. Roads were littered with debris. Still, Salvador did not give up. Even after his school reopened a few weeks after the hurricane, he kept working. He sent texts and made calls.

“I was like, ‘Wait a second, I’m doing algebra and there are people dying a few miles from me,’” he says.

Courtesy of Salvador Gómez-Colón

Salvador delivers solar lamps to a community without power. 

A Painfully Slow Recovery

In the following weeks and months, many people continued to live without electricity. And Salvador continued to help them. He raised more than $140,000. He delivered 4,100 solar lamps and 1,100 washing machines to 15 towns around the island. These items were life changing for communities that were receiving little government aid and were beginning to lose hope.

The rebuilding of Puerto Rico has been painfully slow and is ongoing. Restoring power has been among the biggest challenges, especially to remote communities in the mountains. Power lines had to be strung for miles across narrow mountain roads and through dense forests. Some areas are so remote that materials couldn’t even be hauled by trucks; they had to be carried in by helicopter.

Three months after the hurricane, half the island was still without power. At press time in early June, about 11,000 people still didn’t have electricity. Even in San Juan, where Salvador lives, the power was still going out intermittently, as was cell phone and internet service.

“We’ve grown used to living in a state of uncertainty,” says Salvador.

In the following weeks and months, many people continued to live without electricity. And Salvador continued to help those people. He raised more than $140,000. He delivered 4,100 solar lamps and 1,100 washing machines to 15 towns around the island. These items were life changing for communities that were receiving little aid and were starting to lose hope.

The rebuilding of Puerto Rico has been painfully slow. Restoring power has been among the biggest challenges, especially to remote communities in the mountains. Power lines had to be strung for miles across narrow mountain roads and through thick forests. Some areas are so remote that materials couldn’t be hauled by trucks; they had to be carried in by helicopter.

Three months after the storm, half the island was still without power. At press time in early June, about 11,000 people still didn’t have electricity. Even in San Juan, where Salvador lives, the power was still going out intermittently. Cell and internet service were too.

“We’ve grown used to living in a state of uncertainty,” says Salvador.

Courtesy of Salvador Gómez-Colón

Salvador named his initiative C+Feel=Hope, meaning “See the light, feel clean, have hope.” 

"It's the Hope"

As this article went to the printer, Puerto Rico was heading into another hurricane season. The government has taken steps to prepare, but thousands of Puerto Ricans are still homeless or living in houses that don’t have roofs—only tarps. For these people, even a minor storm poses serious risks.

An estimated 250,000 Puerto Ricans have left for mainland America—mostly Florida.

Will they return?

That’s a question nobody can answer for sure.

But Salvador does not dwell on Puerto Rico’s problems. Too much work needs to be done. He keeps his mind focused on the future, on staying strong.

“It’s the hope,” he says, thinking about what is helping him and others face the island’s challenges and uncertain future. “Hope that things will get better, hope that helping each other will get us through. Hope that we will persevere.”    

As this article went to the printer, Puerto Rico was heading into another hurricane season. The government has taken steps to prepare. But thousands of Puerto Ricans are still homeless or living in homes that don’t have roofs—only tarps. For these people, even a minor storm carries serious risks.

About 250,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island for mainland America - mostly Florida.

Will they return?

That’s a question no one can answer for sure.

But Salvador does not dwell on Puerto Rico’s problems. There is too much work to be done. He keeps his mind on the future.

“It’s the hope,” he says, thinking about what is helping him and others face the island’s challenges. “Hope that things will get better, hope that helping each other will get us through. Hope that we will persevere.”

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue.

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ

2. READING AND DISCUSSING 

3. SKILL BUILDING

Header icon Differentiated Writing Prompts
For On Level Readers

How does this story show that one person can make a difference, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles? Answer this question in a well-organized essay. Use text evidence.

For Struggling Readers

In a well-organized paragraph, summarize how Salvador helped people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Support your answer with text evidence.

For Advanced Readers

Write an essay called “One Kid Can Make a Difference” in which you profile three young people who have helped solve a big problem. Draw on “Island of Sorrow” and at least two other sources of your choosing.

Header icon CUSTOMIZED PERFORMANCE TASKS
For Artists

Create a mural that tells the story of Puerto Rico before, during, and after Hurricane Maria. Be sure to include Salvador Gómez-Colón in your mural. (This project can be done alone or in a group.)

For Volunteers

Identify a problem in your community—anything from hunger to the need for park space. Make a plan for how to help, and take action. Record your project in a journal or blog. After six months, give a class presentation about your project.

Literature Connection: Texts that explore survival in the face of a natural disaster    

Blizzard: The Storm That Changed America  
by Jim Murphy (nonfiction)    

The Big Wave     
by Pearl S. Buck (novella)    

Dark Water Rising 
by Marian Hale (historical fiction)    

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