Jessica Rivera, left, and her son, Christopher, started a new life together in Ohio after Hurricane Maria.
Stronger than the storm
Hurricane victim Christopher Negron's application came with an unusual request: Could UC help his mom find a job?
By Michael Miller
Photos by Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services
March 16, 2018
Christopher Negron was ready to start college in San Juan last fall when Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.
His family and their home were spared, but many others were not as fortunate. The island’s economy and infrastructure were decimated. When weeks of recovery turned into months, Negron, 19, decided to take the initiative by applying to schools on the mainland, including the University of Cincinnati.
The admissions staff at UC was extremely helpful, Negron said, especially since he had one caveat: Could they help his mom find a new job there?
Now his mother, Jessica Rivera, is working as a radiology technician for UC Health’s West Chester Hospital. And Negron plans to take classes at UC's Clermont College in the fall.
“It was like the heavens opened and said this is where you’re going,” Rivera said.
Rivera worked in radiology at a hospital in Puerto Rico and was surprised when West Chester Hospital called to schedule a job interview. She didn’t know her son had applied on her behalf.
“Someone from Ohio wants to interview me about a job. What did you do?” Rivera recalled asking him. “I decided to take the call because it would be rude for me not to. But I never thought it would lead to a job offer.”
“The entire island was affected. The destruction was beyond words.”
‒ Jessica Rivera, survivor of Hurricane Maria
A day after the phone interview, UC Health called again asking if she could come to Cincinnati for an in-person interview. Rivera weighed her family’s options. They had never been to Ohio and her closest family, a cousin, lived in Michigan.
But the family’s second source of income driving a taxi had vanished with the rest of Puerto Rico’s tourism industry. The storm recovery would take many more months. And for some people, life on the island would never be the same, she said. “It was a matter of looking around and seeing that nothing was moving forward. Nothing had changed, even though we were already into November,” she said. “So I decided to take a chance and use my life savings to start somewhere new. Worst case, we’d come home. But at least we’d try.”
Rivera had been through many other coastal storms. But none had packed the devastating energy of Maria.
“The entire island was affected. The destruction was beyond words,” she said.
At its peak intensity, Maria was a Category 5 hurricane and one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic. When the hurricane reached Puerto Rico, it packed sustained winds of 155 mph in a storm that lasted for more than 30 hours. It was the worst natural disaster ever to strike the island, killing 1,052 people and causing an estimated $94 billion in damage. Across the United States, only Hurricane Katrina was more destructive.
Rivera and her son took shelter from the storm at her brother’s house in San Juan.
“You feel hopeless because the river behind his house started coming up. It actually looked like the ocean,” she said.
The next day, they made the dangerous drive back to their home a few miles away. Trees and power lines were down on nearly every street.
“I assumed my house was destroyed, too. God knows, we have two huge trees behind our house,” Rivera said. “But when we got there, it looked like nothing happened — not even a leaf was disturbed. There was destruction everywhere and my house was untouched. Not everyone was so fortunate.”
Daily life after the hurricane was difficult. Rivera’s brother worked for the shipping and delivery company DHL, which provided emergency assistance to its employees and their families. But most people had to wait in hours-long lines for essentials such as gasoline, food and drinking water.
Negron kept friends company in line to get gas for the family’s car. Some people had camped out overnight at the gas station so they could fill up first. Others stretched extension cords so people could charge their phones. And merchants sold drinks and food to people in line.
“I remember hanging out in line with my friends Ederick and Angel playing Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 3DS and having a great time,” he said.
The University of Puerto Rico reopened in the fall and Negron began taking classes. But electrical service was still spotty. Most of his friends were leaving the island to find work. And he, too, had lost his part-time job as a translator in his grandmother’s taxi after cruise ships stopped coming for months after the storm.
He sought advice from one of his professors.
“He said people have different opinions about what to do,” Christopher said. “Try to make the best of it.”
Negron learned about UC and its engineering programs from his uncle, who picked up relief supplies for DHL in Cincinnati. Negron wants to study industrial electronics and information technology. UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science appealed to him. When he read about UC’s ties to UC Health, he hatched a plan.
He spoke with UC admissions counselors. Was there time to enroll? Could he get help arranging financial aid? Would they accept his school transcripts?
“I just remember they said yes to all of my questions,” Negron said.
Finally, he had one more request: Tell me about UC Health’s radiology department.
As it happened, UC Health’s West Chester Hospital was in need of CT technicians, said Robert Staton, director of imaging services.
CT technicians take CAT scans of patients to help diagnose medical conditions ranging from broken bones to tumors. They need both technical expertise and good people skills, Staton said.
“Our recruiter, Jessica Conroy, made first contact to interview her. Her resume was impeccable,” he said. “Had she not been a great candidate, we wouldn’t have hired her. And she’s been a great employee.”
On Nov. 29, Negron and his mom set out on their new life in Ohio with four bags packed with clothes, documents and a few keepsakes.
“I brought an iron pot. Rice doesn’t taste the same cooked in anything else,” she said.
After arriving in Cincinnati and getting a rental car and hotel room, they went to UC’s admissions office.
“We were there for hours trying to figure it out — transcripts, financial aid, admissions. But everyone was so nice,” she said.
The family’s relocation went more smoothly than they could have hoped, thanks to family, new friends and even strangers, Rivera said. Her cousin in Michigan helped furnish their new apartment from the kitchen to the bedrooms. Co-workers even put together a gift basket full of new towels, linens and bedspreads.
The kindness was overwhelming, she said.
“We got the news about the apartment the same day we bought a car. We just sat down in the middle of the Toyota dealership and cried,” she said. “We couldn’t believe it.”
Today, Negron is working at a local pharmacy while he waits for classes to begin in the fall.
Once in Cincinnati, Negron worried about whether moving was the right decision. But his mom said that isn’t a burden he has to carry.
“People relocate all the time, but I do acknowledge what he did. If he didn’t push me a little, we’d still be at home,” she said. “Now we’re here and were invested. So we’ll do the best we can together.”
Rivera said she is sorry her son couldn’t begin his college career on time as he had dreamed since middle school. But she is proud of the way he has responded to adversity.
“He’s not losing a year because he’s living other experiences that will help him. He’s grown more in six months than the past 10 years,” she said.
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