t 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.’”