By Mike Whaley / firstname.lastname@example.org
Jose Soto came to New Hampshire from his native Puerto Rico to play college baseball and to get an education.
Then Hurricane Maria hit.
Soto is one of five teenage Puerto Rican ball players on the inaugural Great Bay Community College baseball team. When Maria hit his home land in mid September, Soto did not hear from anyone in his family for two weeks.
The other players had similar experiences.
"I remember I had a baseball game, my brother called me at 7:30 a.m. and woke me up," Soto recalls. "He told me that I lost my house. But they were OK. I was relieved. They went to a gymnasium with a lot of other people. There was one bed for two people. It was somewhere to live for a few days. They're in good shape now."
Soto said things are getting better and that the family house is getting rebuilt. It will take four years, but in the meantime his family is living in an apartment.
"It was difficult," said Soto, who plays first base and third base. "I couldn't do anything. I couldn't be with them, see them and hug them. It was difficult.
"I was lucky enough to hear from my family in those early days," said Santiago, an outfielder. "It wasn't bad in that sense, but my house didn't have a roof. The roads were all blocked. I live in the mountains. Trees were down. My mom had to live in a friend's house. It was hard; living without electricity for four or five months."
The total losses from the hurricane are estimated at upwards of $91.61 billion (2017 USD), mostly in Puerto Rico, ranking it as the third-costliest tropical cyclone on record. The estimated deaths in Puerto Rico are believed to be higher than the official toll, with estimates ranging from 500 to 1,000. Eleven percent of the island is still without power.
Villalongo, a pitcher, did not hear from a family member for three and a half weeks. There was no damage to his house, but his grandpa's house did suffer from the hurricane.
"That was really hard," Villalongo said. "I didn't hear anything, but I wanted to help them. ... I was here, better than them, but at the same time -- no."
He finally talked to his parents who had been trapped in their farmhouse with trees on the roof. They were able to get downtown after a week to get food and water. Power was restored one month later.
Rodriguez, an outfielder, finally heard from his family on Sept. 29 -- his birthday. "They had to drive two hours because they couldn't get a signal. They finally got it, talked to me and drove back home."
Normandia said his family lives near a river. "The night of the hurricane, I was scared. My sister in Ohio called and said (my family) got out, but the house got flooded by two feet."
That night Normandia's family slept in a boat they owned.
His family tried to call him, first from the highway, but then they were able to get reception by climbing onto the roof of the house.
Things improved quickly. Normandia, a catcher/shortstop, said his family lost furniture to flood damage, but they had electricity and water restored within a week.
It was a tough time for the five. Here they were, several thousand miles from home and living in a new place -- colder, for sure; some barely able to speak English. Still, they were trying to keep life as normal as possible, doing what they left home to do, by playing baseball and going to classes.
"I was talking to my mom every day and she was saying it was going to be all right," Santiago said. "She told me to just keep doing what I was doing. 'We're fine over here.'"
Rodriguez said, "There were two or three games I was out (of it). It was hard to sleep, hard to focus, hard to concentrate. Thinking, oh, something could have happened to them."
Things have improved. The players have since been home to to Puerto Rico see family and they are now able to return their focus to school and baseball.
"I'm pretty proud of these kids," said Great Bay CC baseball coach Enrique Calero, a native of Puerto Rico now living in Rochester who recruited them. "They could have quit."
They are settling in. The five share an apartment in Rochester and get rides to classes with other teammates. That's been a learning experience in itself -- paying rent on time and paying attention to other bills. They almost ran out of oil this past winter because they had no idea how it worked. They had the heat cranked up to 70 degrees every day. They called Calero to say how cold it was and he arranged an emergency delivery for oil. Since then, they have been more vigilant monitoring oil use.
"In a short amount of time they have made a lot of friends," said coach Calero. "Now they do their own thing, a lot of stuff on their own. Which is kind of what we wanted.
"They hardly ever call me anymore," Calero added. "They don't need me now. It's been a good experience for them."