Puerto Rico weighing heavily on mind of TFC’s Hernandez

TORONTO – You’ll forgive Jason Hernandez if he seems a bit distracted these days.

The Toronto FC defender has a lot on his plate, including trying to win what is an uphill battle for more playing time. A veteran of 13 seasons with close to 300 MLS games under his belt, Hernandez has been limited to just eight appearances (and five starts) this season, a stark reminder of the team’s incredible depth and how difficult it is for someone of even his experience to crack the starting 11.

But Hernandez is also dealing with some serious family stuff. Many members of his extended family — including his grandmother, an uncle and a cousin — live in Puerto Rico and are dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that has absolutely devastated the Caribbean island.

According to estimates, roughly one in eight Puerto Ricans have electricity, and just over half have running water. It’s going to take months for Puerto Rico to recover.

None of Hernandez’s family were injured, but like most Puerto Ricans they don’t have access to water, power and basic necessities. That weighs heavily on the mind of Hernandez.

“It’s painful. It’s devastating in a lot of ways. You understand the setup of the island and how things there, in terms of infrastructure, are way behind what we have here in the U.S. and Canada. A disaster like that is going to have an effect ten-fold in Puerto Rico, compared to some other places that could withstand something like that,” Hernandez told Sportsnet.

“It’s going to be very hard on the people there to recover, and it’s very tough to watch from afar.”

Hernandez has been trying to figure out whether he should send supplies to his relatives in Puerto Rico, or have them come to the U.S. to live with his immediate family as the island recovers from the devastation. Connecting with them hasn’t been easy, though.

“Unfortunately, because of the hurricane and the lack of cell towers and the lack of power, we can only get a hold of people once every few days when they can make their way to a cell tower and get some [cell] service, and reach out to us,” Hernandez explained.

“We’re basically sitting tight by the phone waiting to hear what news we can get and how we can move forward, so it’s tough to make plans when you’re not able to readily communicate.”

Every time his cell phone rings, he’s hoping it’s an update on his family, or that it’s one of his relatives in Puerto Rico trying to reach him. It’s a hell of way to go through life, waiting for drips and drabs of information to flow in about a very desperate situation.

“Every time I get a phone call from my mom or my brother, I’m praying it’s something to do with my family in Puerto Rico. Just because we’re not there, it doesn’t mean they’re not in our hearts. Until things are put in place for the island to begin the recovery process, it’s going to continue to be something that dominates my thoughts,” Hernandez admitted.

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Hernandez also had relatives who lived through Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 hurricane that affected 24 states, including the entire eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine. It took time, but those states eventually started to recover. Hernandez feels Puerto Rico will take longer to do so because of the island’s poor infrastructure.

“My relatives didn’t have power for a week [due to Hurricane Sandy], and I’ll tell you what, it was really tough going for them. I can just imagine the people of Puerto Rico, who have a lot less, looking at no power for an extended period, it’s not good,” Hernandez offered.

“If you didn’t live through Sandy, it’s tough to understand what is really happening now in Puerto Rico and how serious the situation is. It just looks like a movie on TV.”

Hernandez, a 34-year-old native of New York who grew up in New Jersey, has played a few games for Puerto Rico’s national team — he qualifies to represent the Caribbean island through his parents — and has visited his family there many times over the years.

“Puerto Rico being a U.S. territory, in a lot of ways it’s the best of both worlds. You get a culture and a uniqueness of a Caribbean island, but also so many American influences. … It’s a culture that’s very passionate and vibrant,” Hernandez said.

“The one thing that attracts [mainland American visitors] to Puerto Rico is its natural beauty, so right now when you see the devastating effects of the hurricane, it’s so sad because you’re taking away what makes Puerto Rico so special.”

He later added: “There are satellite photos circulating on social media of the island at night time, and it’s 90 per cent black. It’s stark.”