Flying into Puerto Rico, the sights of the Caribbean island set the tone for your visit. That was the case when the North Carolina volleyball team flew into the U.S. territory in early September for the ACC/SEC Puerto Rico Clasico.
"Beautiful," setter Holly Carlton said of the flight in. "That was my initial impression."
Coach Joe Sagula agreed. "When you get off the plane, you're feeling all the warm weather, and you know you're in a tropical place, and everybody kind of just smiles," he said. "It just makes everybody kind of relax, but excited at the same time."
Those beautiful images of the island, however, have been thrown off in the past month. Shortly after the team's time on the island, Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall there. Maria knocked out almost all of Puerto Rico's power and caused billions of dollars in damage, killing more than 40 people on the island. As of Tuesday, only 15 percent of the island has power restored, and 30 percent of the island doesn't have fresh running water.
"To think that we were there, at such a positive time, and to think what they're going through, I just hope that they're doing well," Sagula said. "I hope that they're getting healthy, and that they're getting their lives back in order."
To help the people of Puerto Rico recover, the North Carolina volleyball team will be hosting a donation drive tonight during their game against NC State, a fellow Clasico participant. Their desire to help comes from their interactions with the people, and the impact the island of Puerto Rico left on them.
Both Sagula and Carlton were impressed with the support the Tar Heels had when they got to the island. They said the the tournament staff was extremely helpful, making sure the team had everything they needed. That hospitality extended to the fans that attended the tournament.
"The people of Puerto Rico are very big volleyball fans. It's a big part of their culture," Sagula said. "Baseball, volleyball, soccer, and basketball, I don't know that you could say which one of those is No. 1."
Clasico tournament director Pamela Cartagena said via email that getting a chance to see Division I Volleyball players was a big draw for the fans at the tournament, particularly due to the height of top collegiate volleyball players and the talent of the coaches that came.
Carlton said that many fans came up after games for pictures with the players, or just to strike up a conversation. Sagula added that in addition to the volleyball fans that came just for the sport, there were a lot of fans that were just fans of UNC and came out to support the Tar Heels.
"People just knew about us," he said. "Whether they were basketball, soccer, volleyball (fans), whatever it was, they were just fans of the University."
Off the court, everyone from the team's Uber drivers to the staff at the restaurants was friendly, and wanted to show off their home to the visitors. Some players, like Carlton, practiced the Spanish they studied while on the island. She said that Sydnye Fields was occasionally mistaken for a fluent speaker when she spoke in Spanish.
"To be there, and to go into the flavors from their food, to the culture, to the weather, it was a neat experience for everybody," Sagula said.
The first hints of the destruction that would come to the island came while UNC was there, when warnings were slipped under the doors at their hotel about Hurricane Irma's path potentially hitting the island.
Irma ended up clipping parts of Puerto Rico a couple of days after UNC left, but the damage from that storm would pale in comparison to what Hurricane Maria would bring. Maria made landfall on the island on September 20 with over 155 mph winds. The storm's path went over all 3,515 square miles of Puerto Rico, destroying the country's electrical grid and leveling thousands of homes.
"The places where the players stayed didn't suffer any damages, but the areas that they visited during their stay did suffer, such as Old San Juan and El Yunque National Forest," Cartagena said.
Nearly a month after the hurricane, conditions have only marginally improved. Some power is restored, but there remain areas where folks cannot go to get help. The venue the Clasico was held at, the Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez, is now one of the main centers for people to get food and water. Additionally, thousands of people have lost everything they had.
"We did get some emails from people," Sagula said, noting the lack of power making that extremely difficult. "I don't know how they're doing that; I'm amazed. I don't what it would be like if we were in something like that. Your life gets thrown apart."
After the hurricane, the team reached out to Cartagena to see what sort of items were needed for the victims. She responded with a list of items including clothing, flashlights, battery-powered radios & fans, batteries and bug spray that will help the people of Puerto Rico get back on their feet.
"These items are very important since we don't have power, it's very hot, and mosquitos are starting to come out," she said. "There are a lot of people in need that lost everything."
Carlton thinks that the rivalry game with fans of two teams that went down to the Puerto Rico together will help make the impact that much bigger for the people that were so kind to the team while they were down there.
"It's a perfect time to have a huge community help loving people and people in need to have our community be able to help theirs," she said.
Fans are encouraged to bring those items to donate to victims of the hurricane. Bins will be available at the entrance to Carmichael Arena for the donations, which will do directly to the people in need on the island.
Sagula has been gathering up items to donate himself, and has thought about the value of such items as the drive had drawn closer.
"Communication is probably the biggest thing in something like this. Knowing that families are safe," he said. "If they need something that can help them get through the day, if they don't have to go out to purchase things, toiletries and things of that nature, and they can just have it given to them, it just makes their lives that much easier.
"We just want to help the transition, that's all we can do."