The story of how Jose Ferrer’s life changed starts two days before Hurricane Maria razed his hometown of Aguadilla.
Three months into his first semester of college, Ferrer sat in class at the University of Puerto Rico without much concern for the approaching storm.
“I didn’t think it was going to be very strong,” he said. “No one thought it would do too much harm.”
But over the course of a few days, his family would lose everything. Now, Ferrer is enrolled at Polk State College to make a better life for himself and his family.
After class at the University of Puerto Rico, Ferrer went home to help his family prepare for Hurricane Maria.
The hurricane developed from a Category 1 that morning to a Category 5 that evening, possibly making it the quickest strengthening storm ever recorded.
Ferrer, with his parents, 13-year-old brother, and 18-month-old sister, traveled to his grandparents’ house nearby for some extra protection.
Within the first hour of the storm, the doors ripped off the hinges of his grandparents’ home, causing the family to huddle in a small bathroom for safety.
“We couldn’t go through the whole storm without doors – without protection,” Ferrer said. “We had to fight. I remember thinking, ‘We’re not going to die like this.’”
The eye of the storm arrived at 3 a.m. and Ferrer’s family fled on foot to his uncle’s house. Reality set in a little more for Ferrer, who saw the destruction caused by only three hours of the hurricane.
“I remember running as fast as we could and seeing everything destroyed,” he recalled.
His family made it through the hurricane unharmed.
“We couldn’t go through the whole storm without doors – without protection. We had to fight. I remember thinking, ‘We’re not going to die like this.’”
“But in the morning, everything was different,” he said.
“Everything was gone. People were upset. People were mad. It felt like the apocalypse.”
Ferrer describes what many have only watched or read about in the news.
“There was no electricity, no gas. There was no food, no water. And help never came,” he explained.
When his family ran out of milk for his 18-month-old sister, his parents decided they needed to flee the country.
“My mom said, ‘Let’s go on a vacation.’ FEMA was offering two months in a hotel,” Ferrer recalled.
That’s when they came to Clermont.
“Then we received a call that our house in Puerto Rico had been robbed of everything that was left,” he said. “At that point, we decided we aren’t going back.”
So Ferrer started to move on with his life. He enrolled at Polk State College to continue his higher-education pursuits.
Gov. Rick Scott asked Florida state colleges and universities to provide support to students from Puerto Rico, and Polk State President Angela Garcia Falconetti appointed Director of Student Enrollment Services and Registrar Kathy Bucklew as the point of contact for these students.
Bucklew works with them closely and confidentially to identify which exemptions and waivers they may be eligible for to assist them financially, as well as to help them with registration and documentation needs.
“Polk State has been very helpful with getting me enrolled in my classes. It’s a fresh start here.”
Bucklew has assisted more than 60 individuals who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Twelve are currently attending Polk State.
“Polk State has been very helpful with getting me enrolled in my classes,” Ferrer said. “It’s a fresh start here.”
But Ferrer and his family still face struggles every day. They still live in Clermont, where they receive government assistance.
The family shares one vehicle, so Ferrer’s mother doesn’t work in order to transport his father to work his night shifts, take his 13-year-old brother to school in the mornings, and get Ferrer to the Winter Haven Campus by noon for classes Monday through Thursday. Ferrer helps his family out by working at Publix when he is not in school.
“It’s hard seeing all of the suffering,” he said. “It’s hard knowing that there is suffering over in Puerto Rico, and it is hard knowing that my mom and dad are tired, stressed, and scared.”
Ferrer plans to study hard and get a job in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement one day.
“I just hold on to the hope that working hard and going through what my family is going through now will pay off for us one day,” he said. “It’s been hard and it’s been different, but we will make it through.”