Academics and experts from across the nation gathered at Brooklyn College on Nov. 30 for “Weathering the Storm: The Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and the Diasporic Communities,” a daylong conference on the effects of and responses to this year’s hurricane season—the worst on record. Honorable Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, delivered the keynote address at the event, which was sponsored by Brooklyn College and the CUNY Mellon Faculty Diversity Career Enhancement Initiative, in collaboration with the college’s Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies.

“Our campus is home to more than 17,600 students, from more than 100 nations, and a great many of them hail from the regions hardest hit,” said Brooklyn College President Michelle J. Anderson to a packed audience in the college gymnasium. “For us collectively to weather a storm, we have to have experts from across a whole range of disciplines who can come together and try to strategize how best to respond to the crisis. Today’s conference is an opportunity to convene, to deliberate on best practices in response to the consequences of disasters. And as part of our mission here at Brooklyn College, I promise that we will bring our intellectual capacity, our creative juice to these kinds of problems and we will continue to deliberate and bring the creative capital and the intellectual capital that we have to the service of a greater public good.”

Mayor Cruz Soto discussed in detail the current needs and challenges of Puerto Ricans, as they work to recover from Hurricane Maria, which tore through the island this September and was the strongest storm to make landfall there in 85 years. She noted that about 90 percent of people have drinking water and about 50 percent of the population has electricity, but that most of the hospitals in Puerto Rico are still running entirely on generators, “which of course are dropping like flies because they are not made to withstand weeks and weeks and weeks, 24 hours of day,” she said.

“As of yesterday, in San Juan, we have picked up 166.4 million pounds of trash, 87.7 million of those are debris and vegetative material,” said the mayor. “As of yesterday, we have fed in San Juan 218,778 people, out of the 350,000, and we did it in a sustainable way.”

Mayor Cruz Soto added that the influx of aid from around the globe has been incredible, but there are still many towns that need support. “Because the outpouring of love is so great, sometimes it just hits the same place, but people in towns like Morovis, Naranjito, Corozal, Comerio, San Lorenzo, Yauco, are not getting what they need. About 60 percent of everything we have been able to provide was given from the private sector, the non-for-profit sector, about 40 percent from FEMA. And I received a text this morning saying that as of December 15, FEMA was pulling out.”

The mayor went on to talk about her own family’s working class background and the importance of education in helping to provide people a path to upward mobility. “I am the great-granddaughter of a sugar plantation worker, two generations removed from extreme poverty,” said Mayor Cruz Soto. “My grandmother came to New York to study when women didn’t go to school, and she worked in a cafeteria in the Bronx, so my father could eat at the cafeteria during the day. But I don’t know what poverty is, because of education. My family was able to claw their way out of poverty because of education.”

Speaking about the future of Puerto Rico, Mayor Cruz Soto said, “We have to take responsibility for the things we didn’t do, and we have to do them. And rather than rebuilding, which means going back to the way things were, we have to transform, and become a more just, a fairer, a more equitable society, one where the depth of your pocket is not what is at stake, it is the depth of your soul that is what counts. And that starts with education.”

Following the keynote address, the program continued in the Brooklyn College Student Center with a series of panels, such as “Feeding Our People” and “(Re)Building Resilient Communities.” Other special guests included: Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the New York City Council and council member of the 8th District of Manhattan; CUNY Board of Trustees member Lorraine Cortés-Vásquez; CUNY Executive Vice Chancellor Vita Rabinowitz; City College President Vincent Boudreau; and Jonathan Soto, executive director of the Mayor’s Center for Faith and Community Partnerships, representing Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Weathering the Storm” was made possible by the efforts of many individuals and groups, especially Professor Reynaldo Ortiz-Minaya of the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, the Puerto Rican Alliance (PRA), the Mexican Heritage Student Association (MHSA), Movimiento Estudiantil Dominicano (MEDO), Brooklyn College Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College, the Office of the President of Brooklyn College, the CUNY Office of Recruitment and Diversity, the CUNY Mellon Faculty Diversity Career Enhancement Initiative, and the CUNY Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost.