With families stranded and struggling, college players reeling from Puerto Rico hurricane disaster

A harrowing humanitarian crisis is emerging in Puerto Rico, where nearly 3.5 million Americans are dealing with the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria. The storm, which hit the island Sept. 20, has halted the way of regular life there. The United States territory, which was already in decade-plus decline of massive debt, is staring at tens of billions of dollars in damages and facing decades of recovery. 

Horses and cows lay dead in the streets and fields. The majority of Puerto Rico's crop has been eliminated, putting the population in peril for prolonged poverty. Category 5-force winds have caused homes to flake debris across mountainsides. Landslides have eliminated communities, and there are millions without electricity and running water -- a reality that may stay for weeks to come. Lines for gas curl for miles, and people are trekking by car or foot to highways and other open areas in search of cellphone signal in an effort to reach loved ones home and abroad. 

The tragic events have affected a group of players in college basketball, too. There are approximately a dozen D-I men's players who hail from Puerto Rico. (The island has regularly produced Division I athletes for decades.) In the midst of this recovery process, there are student-athletes scattered across the United States who have family members that have lost homes and may not find normalization in their lives for many months, if not years. 

Saint Joseph's, George Washington, South Florida, Duquesne, Fairfield., The Citadel, Liberty, Manhattan, North Florida, Presbyterian and San Diego all have players who are dealing with a disaster from afar. Other schools, like TCU and Arizona State, have players who hail from the Caribbean and have seen their families displaced.  

Puerto Rico Faces Extensive Damage After Hurricane Maria
Hurricane Maria rampaged through the entire island, taking the homes of thousands.  Getty Images

TCU freshman Kevin Samuel, who is from Barbuda, has his whole family displaced. For the first time in approximately 300 years, the island cannot technically claim one person as a permanent resident due to the damage inflicted there by Hurricane Irma. His family was transported to the island of Antigua, which is a two-hour boat ride away. With the island's cell phone tower snapped in two, Samuel waited three days after Irma to hear from his mother and sisters after the switched islands. 

Samuel, who is believed to be the first power conference player from Barbuda, which has less than 2,000 people, learned to play the game on the tiny island's only basketball court. His family isn't anticipating being able to move back to Barbuda until January. 

Samuel can identify with many players who have by proxy experienced the devastation in Puerto Rico, which lies 270 miles just northwest of Barbuda. LeAndro Allende, who plays for The Citadel, recently learned his grandfather's home near the northeast side of the island was destroyed. Allende's father, Luis, is the person in charge of Hospital Metropolitano in San Juan. 

"The country is devastated, the whole country lost electricity," Luis Allende told CBS Sports while speaking by phone, able to connect using one of the relatively few working towers in Puerto Rico. "I'm waiting for my hospital to get power. The hospital is running on a generator, but there is no AC."

Allende's hospital has 71 patients, 24 of which he said were in level one or level two of ICU. In order to keep generators running, the hospital is spending more than $3,000 per day -- precious funds -- on 500-600 gallons of diesel fuel. 

"One of the biggest issues we're dealing with is gasoline," he said. "People are making seven-hour wait times just to get $20 of gas. We're trying to talk to the gas stations and let them know the nurses and employees of the hospital need to be taken care of so they can take care of the patients. People are getting, by the day, nastier and nastier. It's not easy being without electricity, now without it for a week." 

Allende said people are walking into his hospital lobby and waiting their turn to charge cellphones, but things are constantly uneasy. He said another hospital was robbed earlier in the week, which also involved a person getting killed. Allende said there is an island-wide curfew in effect, which starts at 7 p.m. and lifts at 5 a.m. 

"People are getting desperate," he said. "It's been challenging." 

San Juan's ports are bringing in as much as possible, but the infrastructure is not in place to get donations of emergency items to people in time. This CBS News report went viral Wednesday:

Outside of San Juan, a big issue of immediate concern is those on the east side of the island. Communities tucked in the mountains and those off in deep rural points are cut off from help because roads have been devastated and bridges have been wiped out. Thousands of people are still waiting for aid, much of which will have to be delivered via helicopter in the coming weeks. 

Many of college basketball's Puerto Rican natives lived with unease and uncertainty in the days after Maria hit as they waited to find out if their friends and family were alive. Some did not hear from loved ones until Sunday -- five days after the storm. San Diego sophomore José Martinez had to wait more than a week before finally breathing easy. Martinez, whose mother and sister live in the United States, did not hear from his father, nor from 27 cousins or 14 aunts and uncles on the island until Wednesday. He still has not heard from his best friend, José, the person responsible for getting him into basketball. It was nearly a decade ago when Martinez was shooting a soccer ball into a basketball hoop at a local playground. 

José Barrios, five years older than the young Martinez, gave him a basketball. It would put him on a path to playing Division I.

Martinez discovered, after a call from his sister who spoke to others on the island, that some of his family have lost their houses but they remain in good spirits. San Diego coach Lamont Smith spoke with his athletic director earlier this week, and they're working on something that can be done, in compliance with NCAA rules, for Martinez and for Puerto Rico in an effort to help the cause. Martinez's father lives in Coamo, and is cut off from aid. They're trying to figure out if they can bring Martinez's father, eventually, to the States.

"Coamo is a working-class town with a lot of struggle," Martinez said. "It's in the south. Baseball is huge there. It's divided by two rivers and two bridges. The people over there, they can't cross the rivers because it's flooded. That's what make it worse." 

Martinez's only contact with people on the island, directly, came when his stepsister was sitting in the middle of the highway, along with dozens of others, earlier this week. The call dropped after about four minutes. 

"I'm not doing OK," Martinez said. "The people I love the most, I haven't talked to them. It's hard for me to sleep at night. Calling them, not seeing them answering, and not having them text you. ... But my father, it's terrible. I wish I was there. I prefer to be there and go through what they're going through, to go through it together with them. Not be so far away."

arnoldotorogwpr.jpg
Arnaldo Toro, who plays for George Washington, went days without hearing from his loved ones. Photo courtesy Arnaldo Toro

Martinez, Allende and many others are bonded not just by their Puerto Rican heritage, but because of their communal experience with the Puerto Rican national basketball program. Most players who are in Division I now have been cultivated by the hoops experience with the Puerto Rican national team. 

Ruben Arroyo, who plays at Presbyterian, is from Patillas, a two-hour ride from San Juan. The school gym where he learned to play basketball had its roof ripped away by Maria. Georgie Pachecho-Ortiz, a sophomore at Liberty who is from the touristy shore town of Ponce, went almost six days between talking to his parents and didn't sleep for most of it. 

"I don't know if other people from the States know, but our economy is not good," he said. "Just getting water every day. I know some families like my family, they barely work. All I can say is we need help. Our island needs help. Needs food. Needs something. We need to rebuild our houses so our families back home can just live again." 

At Manhattan, freshman Ebube Ebube said his family is rationing canned food in their one-floor ground-level apartment in Santurce, the beachy northern area above San Juan proper and a tourist hub for the island. His father used up gas earlier this week to drive to his humble optometry office 30 minutes away to check on the damage. The office was flooded and a storm screen had been ripped away. 

"They didn't give me that much detail because my parents don't want me to worry, because I'm not there," Ebube said. 

Jesus Cruz, who plays for Fairfield, has family in Carolina, Puerto Rico. The disaster has visibly affected him, Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson, but he's also remained strong and impressed his friends, coaches and teammates with how he's committed himself to staying positive. 

"It's flashlights and candles at night," Johnson said. "There's a lot of things. They've basically been plunged into third-world living in a sense. It's emotionally a tough time for him and his family."

The family of Saint Joseph's senior Christian Vega is trying to get off the island, but the San Juan airport is overcrowded, overheated without power, and thousands upon thousands of Americans are trying get off the island. Vega's father will be staying behind to rebuild.  

The scope of the storm grabs hold when you realize that all these players come from myriad points across Puerto Rico. George Washington sophomore Arnaldo Toro's hometown of Hormigeuros, on the far west side of the island, suffered as much desecration as North Florida's Ivan Gandia-Rosa, whose family lost everything, including their home, on the east side of the island, in Caguas. Fortunately, none of the players had a loved one killed by the hurricane. 

"We're kind of a speck on the map," South Florida sophomore Yito Alvarado said. "Everything is kind of close together. I was having a conversation with my roommate the other day. He's also Puerto Rican. And Puerto Rico has one of the most diverse cultures for such a small place. The food, the cuisine, the music, the athletes that Puerto Rico's produced. It's so diverse, and you can see that with the people. The native dances, the music, the way Puerto Ricans do things. They say there's no Christmas like Christmas in Puerto Rico." 

Recovery efforts continue, and day by day the United States and global efforts are recognizing the urgent situation that will remain in a critical state for the foreseeable future. A number of legitimate charity options are available

College basketball has been directly impacted, as it was announced Thursday that the annual Puerto Rico Tip-Off would be moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina this season. With practices set to start across the country this weekend, the programs and players impacted by Maria are in the process of trying to raise funds to send money and goods to the millions of Americans stranded approximately 1,000 miles from the mainland. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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