Paradise (noun) – a place of extreme beauty, delight, or happiness.
For many, the sun-kissed island of Puerto Rico fits the bill for the definition of paradise with its sunny beaches, blue waters and charming culture. The popular tourist destination and home to over three million citizens played host to “Boys in Blue” Seth Moses during his one-season stint with North American Soccer League club Puerto Rico FC.
On September 20, 2017, paradise would be lost as Hurricane Maria devastated the Caribbean island and its inhabitants. Those who were forced to stay behind, which included Moses and some of his former teammates, were left to weather the storm.
“We got confirmation that some of us couldn’t get off the island,” said Moses. “What we [my teammates] did was that we decided to make a post for us to meet up after the hurricane. Some of us had to go separate directions to make sure that we all met at this place, and we were to prepare for it.”
Those who remained on the island scrambled for supplies as they prepared for the worst. Like most left to face the storm, Moses and his squad mates managed to gather fresh drinking water and a plethora of non-perishable goods in the days leading up to Maria’s landfall. Even the most prepared of those wouldn’t be ready for what Maria would leave in its wake.
Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico with torrential rainfall and winds up to 155 mph for more than 30 hours. Obliterated homes, flipped cars, flooded streets and toppled trees set the scene as people began to emerge after the storm moved on. The entirety of the island was also left without power, lights and running water, a problem that Puerto Rico continues to struggle with to this day.
Communication with the world outside of Puerto Rico’s water-logged borders was severely limited, but communal bonds began to form.
“From the moment that I moved into the apartment complex I didn’t really know anyone,” Moses said. “But after the storm, I got to know everyone that was living in that building. We had a refugee spot, so we had people on the first floor that could provide first aid to people who were hurt and everything like that. When you don’t have anything and you’re in that kind of situation it’s all about the people that you’re around, no matter the color, race, language or whatever.”
Once the clouds cleared, the full extent of the storm’s damage became apparent. Some estimates state Puerto Rico lost nearly $95 billion in total damages, but that number doesn’t compare to the number of priceless memories, belongings and lives that were lost to Maria.
Looking beyond personal hardships, the collective of able-bodied citizens began work to help their fellow neighbors. There wasn’t a task too small and no kind gesture taken for granted.
Moses and his teammates didn’t hesitate in joining the relief efforts by contributing what they could with their own resources. Over the course of 11 days, Moses and company worked with locals to clean the streets, as well as distributed food, supplies and happiness, as the surrounding community searched for a sense of normalcy in the wake of destruction.
“After the storm passed by there were people that were obligated to clean up the streets and stuff like that, but we saw everyone cleaning up the streets,” Moses recounted. “You saw everyone doing something - I remember we were able to. Fortunately, I had money in my account. After waiting in long lines at the ATM, getting diesel for the cars, driving through the rivers to get all these things we were able to start helping. We bought sandwiches, we made sandwiches, and we passed them out to people who were still living on the streets before the storm. It was a big duty for us.”
Though their work in Puerto Rico had just begun, there were other matters that Moses and the rest of his teammates had to take care of.
With the NASL's Fall season still underway and PRFC's stomping grounds unplayable, Moses and this former teammates were forced to finish the remaining eight games of their season on the road. The team stayed in Kissimmee, Florida. The players and coaching staff were split between three houses as they continued to travel stateside week in and week out.
Moses and his team experienced a new set of hardships as the team registered two wins and eight losses to finish their season. But who could blame them? Displaced, tired and constantly on the road, it wasn't the ideal conditions to cultivate a winning mentality. But, the team was grateful to be safe and playing the game they were passionate about. Moses believes this motivated his teammates and opponents.
“You can see that there was an overall respect that I think lifted the players that we were playing against to want to play harder,” said Moses. “They saw how fortunate they were; to have the things that they had and it pushed them.”
The end of the season came and went. Puerto Rico finished in fourth place in the Fall season. After the final whistle blew of their 2017 season, Moses and his team wasted no time in returning to Puerto Rico to pick up where they left off.
A little over a month had passed since Maria's landfall and the state of the island hadn't improved much since Moses' last visit. The power remained out for majority of the residents and debris riddled everywhere the eye could see. Moses described the severity of the damage after he’d seen “someone’s kitchen from the outside”, and all that stood was a lone refrigerator.
The midfielder committed himself to community service efforts, but that didn't come without its own set of difficulties.
“There were trucks being sent out with supplies to areas, but one of the trucks got flipped, so we had to dig through and salvage the supplies that were still able to be passed out.”
The community rallied together and salvaged what they could to remain positive. Though receiving supplies and cleaning the streets made for better living conditions, it was the Puerto Ricans' ability to smile in such trying times that left Moses awestruck.
“We were able to help them clean up and give them food,” Moses explained. “We ended up connecting with someone who had a guitar and played music, and just saw people coming together. Most importantly, it was just the music, the smiling, the sun - it was amazing.”
Eight months have passed. In that time, Moses has found a new home in the Crossroads of America, but his thoughts still focus on his Puerto Rican paradise.
Though things have improved, Puerto Rico still suffers from Maria's aftermath, and will for the foreseeable future. While it may not be his current residence, Moses looks to return to the island someday to give back the best way he knows how, through soccer.
“There’s obviously more that I can do, as much as anybody,” stated Moses. ”That grass is still there. The sun is there. The sport [soccer] is there. That can lift a lot of people. There are already kids playing on the street and that’s how the game starts. I definitely want to go back there and make a difference. I want to give the kids the opportunity, because there is light in the dark.”