Manny Diaz was in San Francisco with the UGA men’s tennis team. However, his mind was on Puerto Rico, and his eyes were on the weather radar, watching a hurricane bear down on the island he was raised on and where his parents live.
Historically, hurricanes end up missing Puerto Rico because of the trade winds. The island usually gets the outskirts of big storms. But Hurricane Maria gave Puerto Rico a direct hit last weekend, surprising islanders who had been used to missing them and devastating the U.S. commonwealth.
“It is just total devastation there,” Diaz said Wednesday. “Beautiful rain forest in the center of the island. A beautiful picturesque island that looks like an atomic bomb hit it.”
Diaz, the longtime and national championship-winning coach of the UGA men’s tennis team, watched in horror. He frantically texted and called family members, especially his parents: Manuel Diaz Sr., 91, and Avelina, 86.
The family got lucky: Diaz purchased a plane ticket online the night the hurricane hit and didn’t even ask his parents; he just bought them. They landed in Atlanta on Monday afternoon, much to the relief of Diaz – who had been there since before dawn.
The tennis team had been on the West Coast at a tournament. They took a red-eye and landed in Atlanta at 5:50 a.m. on Monday, and Diaz put his players on a shuttle home to Athens. He stayed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and waited anxiously until his parents landed at 5 p.m.
“I went through 36 hours without sleep, but they went through a lot more,” Diaz said. “And people in Puerto Rico are suffering.”
Welcome to Georgia pic.twitter.com/xI3RCGPnvO
— Manuel Diaz (@CoachMannyDiaz) September 25, 2017
Diaz’s parents will be here indefinitely. His sister is also on the mainland, getting a flight to New York on Tuesday night. Other family members in Puerto Rico are safe.
But Diaz is worried about his home island, which he left in 1971 to enroll as a freshman at UGA.
From what he’s seen on the news, and heard from friends and family members, Diaz painted a dire state of things: 100 percent were without power, with a tiny bit since restored. Agriculture has been decimated. The biggest dam on the island has a crack. The roads look like rivers.
“My sister told me it was inhuman conditions in the airport,” Diaz said. “So you can imagine what life is like on the street.”
Diaz is doing his small part to increase awareness. He’s been active on Twitter, trying to get word out on the best ways for people to donate for hurricane relief. He pointed to a joint effort by Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez, who have Puerto Rican heritage. And, of course, the American Red Cross, Reach Out Worldwide, United Way and United for Puerto Rico.
The coach also understands why Puerto Rico hasn’t been getting as much attention: distance and hurricane fatigue.
“It’s not that people do not want to care. When something happens in Houston or Miami, it’s here. They are probably a lot more aware of what’s going on. When you have a tree fall in your backyard, it certainly gets a lot more attention,” Diaz said. “I’m just trying to call a little more attention to these are American citizens. These are folks that have represented the United States of America in every war in the century. And they need help as well.”