Months after Hurricane Maria hit the island, Puerto Rico is still recovering from the storm’s devastating aftermath and continues to need help.

Quinnipiac University recently sent the first academic group to aid the relief effort in Cataño, where eight students and three professors have been helping restore the mangrove forest and seeing firsthand the effects of the disaster.

The group is there working with CARAS de las Américas, a nonprofit organization that works on environmental and educational efforts in San Juan, Cataño and Guaynabo. They landed on the island Jan. 10.

“Mangroves are important to the environment here,” Margarita Diaz, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac, said from the island where she’s a native. “It’s a plant designed to survive coastal water and provides habitat for wildlife, birds, fish and crustaceans that rely on mangroves. It’s a really strong resilient plant.”

Mangroves are trees and shrubs that live in coastal intertidal zones and help stabilize the coastline by reducing erosion from storm surges, waves, tides and currents. Their roots, which can often be recognized by their dense tangles, allow the trees to handle the daily rise and fall of tides and also makes them a natural habitat for wildlife.

The group has been clearing the mangrove forest of fallen trees, branches and debris, and cleaning up the trails to give local environmental workers access, she said. On Monday, they were preparing the soil for new mangroves to be planted, weeding out invasive species and placing potted plants for new growth.

This trip has been Diaz’s first to Puerto Rico in two years and seeing the wreckage has been difficult, she said.

“It has been emotional, coming back to this seeing the damage,” she said and working in poor neighborhoods where 20 percent of the houses are destroyed and the rest damaged has “been very tough,” especially in areas she is familiar with. “It was heartbreaking. To see familiar landmarks that were there my entire life gone and never (coming) back, it was really hard. I didn’t anticipate how I was going to feel when I saw that.”

Some students on the trip have family on the island who survived the hurricane, and having a personal connection to the crisis motivated a few to volunteer. Stephen Oliveras of New Haven is one student on the trip whose family lives on the island and saw Hurricane Maria hit.

Soon after it happened, some of his cousins left Puerto Rico to live with him while his grandparents, aunts and uncles stayed with other family members across the country. Hearing from his cousins about the island’s devastation, Oliveras jumped at the opportunity to help with the relief effort when the school opened the trip to the campus.

“We see on the news the destruction, but when you step out of the airport and trees are down and bent permanently from the wind, it’s a shocker and eye opener,” he said. “Even in the capital, it’s better, but there’s still trash everywhere. You can still see the after effects.”

Oliveras had spent summers in Puerto Rico as a child and remembered the island before the disaster, saying he anticipated seeing devastation but took it harder than he expected seeing it firsthand.

Mia Martinez of North Haven also was motivated to volunteer because of her family connection to the island. Most of her family was there when Hurricane Maria hit, traveling right through where her grandmothers live, she said. Their homes saw a good amount of damage and she wasn’t able to contact them for six weeks after the hurricane.

“I knew we were going to San Juan and expected it to be more cleaned up and based on what we’ve seen ... that’s true, but half of the signals are down and you see in the trees how the wind has blown them,” she said. “Those towns where the damage is a little bit more, that’s something that hurts me but I’m glad we have opportunity to be working in those cities to help.”

U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both D-Conn., recenlty returned from visiting the island and spoke about their trip with members of the Puerto Rican community at Fair Haven Middle School in New Haven. Blumenthal called the situation in Puerto Rico “a humanitarian crisis.”

While Quinnipiac’s trip initially focused on working with a local after-school program, once Hurricane Maria hit the island, the trip’s purpose changed to aid in the relief effort. Amanda Pullano, who was enrolled in the class that planned on taking the trip, said the work in the mangrove has been “very rewarding,” adding that it’s been a lot of manual labor but rewarding, knowing that they’re making a change.

Oliveras said the work to restore the mangrove has been intense.

“We wanted a challenge and to be put to work,” he said. “We’re sweating every day under the sun but the group is enthusiastic about it.”

While the emphasis of their work has been restoring the mangroves, the students have also been learning about the island’s culture and visiting historical sites, Diaz said. They also donated supplies to an after-school program through money the students raised over the past few months. They brought science kits, microscopes, soil testing kits, books, flashcards, games, puzzles, rechargeable solar lamps and flashlights.

“To me it feels good and I hope it’s making a difference,” Diaz said.