Classes are the least of concerns at Puerto Rico's optometry school after Hurricane Maria crippled the island territory and scattered evacuated students nearly two weeks ago.
"Although students are stressed about boards and when school will resume, our focus is geared even more toward making sure everyone is safe," relayed second-year Inter American University of Puerto Rico (IAUPR) School of Optometry student Kadee Marshall via email.
"We have to exercise patience and compassion, keeping in mind that our professors and staff live in Puerto Rico and many did not have power or water, and already had previous damage to their homes, even before Maria."
Battered by Hurricane Irma only weeks earlier, Puerto Rico suffered Maria's worst when the category 4 storm made landfall Sept. 20. That blow disrupted power and communications, and drained necessities, such as clean water, fuel—even money. The single largest catastrophe in Puerto Rico's history, by the governor's estimate, has ground to a standstill the island's economy, one already hobbled by an ongoing recession and storm damage from Irma's near-miss.
Against that backdrop, IAUPR students clamored for departing flights stateside days prior to Maria after IAUPR announced the suspension of classes ahead of the storm. Now, those same students can only sit and watch as their school picks up the pieces.
"Hurricane Maria has distressed Puerto Rico more than any of us could have imagined," Marshall writes.
Evacuate and wait
Marshall was one of those students searching for flights up until the last minute. It wasn't until Tuesday morning that she made it out of Bayamón, flying back to California where she awaited to hear how the school fared. That news arrived days later when she learned the classrooms, clinic, library and administration offices had been flooded or damaged in the hurricane.
Pictures posted to social media by students who remained behind show standing water, fallen trees and debris hanging from the school's façade. Marshall says it's her understanding that classes may not resume for at least a month while clean up continues not only at school but also across the island. Attempts to reach IAUPR faculty were unsuccessful, and the optometry school's website is still inaccessible.
"My plans right now are to pretend like school could resume next week basically," she writes. "We have plenty of study material from first year to review as well as plenty of lectures to review from this year, thus far."
Marshall's apartment didn't fare much better than her school as broken windows resulted in a soaking throughout. Anything not behind closet doors, she'll have to replace. But she's quick to put everything in perspective.
"That's all just stuff which can eventually be replaced," Marshall says. "I'm just happy to be safe in California for now."
Disaster relief fund helping doctors, students
Days after Maria's landfall on the U.S. territory, Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón made headlines when she reported to the U.S. Congress that the storm "set [Puerto Rico] back nearly 20 to 30 years." Early reports estimate Maria caused $40 billion to $85 billion in insured losses —mostly in Puerto Rico—which could surpass the combined insured losses of hurricanes Harvey and Irma that wrought havoc on U.S. states and territories only weeks before.
Puerto Rico's conditions are such that the U.S. Navy deployed the hospital ship, USNS Comfort, with 522 medical personnel and support staff to the island, including Lt. Matt Decker, O.D. Separately, Public Health Service Capt. Dawn Clary, O.D., was deployed to provide eye care services in the area, too.
This especially calamitous Atlantic hurricane season has affected untold numbers of doctors and students across the U.S., and AOA continues to champion a call for donations to help our colleagues in need.
Optometry's Fund for Disaster Relief, a program of Optometry Cares®—The AOA Foundation, is optometry's exclusive financial support program that provides immediate assistance to those doctors, and now students, in need following natural disasters. Already, some 90 doctors have sought aid following recent hurricanes and wildfires.
Since AOA President Christopher J. Quinn, O.D., first issued an appeal for donations on Aug. 28, the profession has responded overwhelmingly. As of Sept. 28, more than 400 individual donors, bolstered by substantial contributions from industry partners, have brought total donations to nearly $300,000.
Among the industry partners donating to Optometry's Fund for Disaster Relief are:
- Luxottica Wholesale
- Essilor of America
- Vision West, Inc.
- EyeCare Partners
- The Vision Council
Optometry's Fund for Disaster Relief
In a virtual kick-off, the AOA launches Leadership Institute with 130 doctors of optometry from across the country. A project of the AOA Leadership Development Committee, the Institute is a yearlong program designed to grow and support the next generation of leaders in the profession.
At the 2021 Leaders Summit, AOA-member volunteers set priorities for the year and launched new initiatives to lead the profession forward.