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Climate Change and Puerto Ricos Challenge for Recovery

There is no doubt that climate change is happening, and it is clear that the negative effects of this change are increasing at an alarming rate. As a young person, climate change is an issue that terrifies me, and I am sure will continue to effect my life in the future.

My country, the U.S., is one of the top consumers of fossil fuels, and in September 2017, one of our territories was hit with the strongest climate change disasters it has ever seen: Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. 

Corporations and political leaders hold power over decisions such as fossil fuel use, and without any regulation or change, normal citizens will continue to suffer. I am going to look at the specific case of negative climate change effects in Puerto Rico, how these effects exposed corruption in Puerto Ricos government, and the underlying issue of colonialism.

The rainfall that occurred during Maria was incredibly destructive to the island’s infrastructure. It caused widespread flooding, destroyed crucial dams, and helped knock-out drinking water to nearly the entire island. It also triggered tens of thousands of landslides, which isolated communities for days or weeks at a time. 

Climate change is the reason that storms like Maria are happening more frequently and becoming more intense. Warming oceans are responsible for increased rainfall and flooding, and the storms are thriving with warmer atmospheres and higher moisture availability.

But, the issue of climate change is not the only problem Puerto Ricans face. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria unveiled a corrupt government and problems of colonialism that were only recently brought to the worlds attention.

When Hurricane Maria hit, many Puerto Rican residents said that their lives changed over night. Fully, 83 percent reported either major damage to their homes, losing power for more than three months, employment setbacks or worsening health problems, among other effects of the storm. A year later, residents were still struggling with basic necessities. Both the U.S. and local Puerto Rican governments seemed to ignore or underrepresent these facts, and after Maria, basically left Puerto Ricans to fend for themselves. 

Puerto Ricans have witnessed a failure of help from all levels of government. Donald Trump has long spewed the rhetoric that his administration’s recovery efforts in Puerto Rico after Maria were appropriate and effective, saying that the federal government did “a fantastic job” there. Overall though, Puerto Ricans gave terrible feedback when rating the presidents response to Maria. 

Locally, Puerto Ricans had an unsupportive government that underrepresented Maria’s death toll for months after the disaster. Then, a few years later, Puerto Ricans witnessed their Governor, Ricardo Rossello, targeting victims who had died during the storm after nearly 900 pages of messages were released between the Governor and his colleagues.

This was the last straw. After this news, thousands of Puerto Ricans gathered on the streets of San Juan to protest the resignation of Rossello. Immediately after, the Governor refused to step down, but after he was faced with impeachment and persistent protestors, he resigned a week later.

This protest was not simply about Rossello though. It has stemmed from decades-long economic crises and political mismanagement in Puerto Rico. Also, according to many Puerto Rican political observers, Hurricane Maria, and therefore climate change, was at the heart of their resistance.

The relationship between resistance and climate change is an important one. These issues in Puerto Rico were no secret to Puerto Ricans, but the protests against Rossello may not have happened if it had not been for Hurricane Maria. Therefore, this allowed Puerto Ricans to gain nation wide attention to the underlying issues of colonialism that has been occurring in their country since the 1500’s.

Changes that are happening with the earth are causing huge amount of suffering, and it is mostly concentrated in marginalized groups. Yet, we have a government and a President who does not acknowledge climate change, has changed fossil fuel regulation, and has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, and even after science has continually acknowledged that storms such as Maria are accelerated by climate change, the administration still does have any empathy or a solution for help. 

We are one of the top consumers of fossil fuels in the world, and even when our own territory is experiencing the negative effects, we turn our backs and deny them help. Hurricane Maria is only the beginning of climate accelerated storms, and I believe the governments responsible for this acceleration should hold some accountability. 

Support is still needed. The effects of Maria are still lasting through the island, and the U.S. should be there to help its citizens in need. The government seems useless in this manner, so I think it is up to fellow citizens to offer help in any way they can. While Puerto Ricans are able to make their own internal changes, they cannot fight the lasting effects of climate change alone. 

The Resilience of Disaster Survivors

An interview about Hurricane Maria

I spoke with Emilyann, a 20 year old woman from Isabela, Puerto Rico, who shared her story with me about her experience with Hurricane Maria. She had been on the island when the hurricane struck Isabela, which is on the North-West side of the island. Her town was hit when the eye of the hurricane was exiting Puerto Rico. “It was very strange,” Emilyann said, “because I have never experienced a hurricane before.” She recalls preparing her room for the hurricane, and covering her windows with trash bags. I asked her how she found out about the hurricane, and she said through memes on facebook. “It all happened so quickly. At first people didn’t even take it [the hurricane threat] seriously until a few days before it was supposed to happen”. 

The night of the hurricane, she was awoken by strong winds, and no power. When the hurricane finally dissipated, she said her family was lucky to have fresh water, but they still did not have power or cellular connection. Her situation was one that millions of people on the island experienced. The hurricane knocked out about eighty percent of Puerto Rico’s power lines, and caused the largest blackout in U.S. history, and the second largest in the world. Emilyann recalls, “For me, this was the hardest part because I was always on my phone, and the next day, I just didn’t have a charge” (after letting her phone die the night of the hurricane). She said it definitely was not good, but she also said she doesn’t regret going through the experience. “I grew closer to my family members, and to my community as well.” 

Emilyann left a month after the hurricane, and came to New York by herself. “I have always wanted to be in New York; It has been a dream of mine.” She also said her move to a new place was not that difficult. “It was kinda easy for me. I have always been independent, but I feel it on the holidays when I’m not with my family. It gets hard.” 

Even though she moved, Emilyann has not left Puerto Rico behind. With her family still there she said that, “Whenever I can just book a flight and go, I’ll go”.  She said for her family, it was a matter of just getting adjusted to life after the hurricane. “There was stuff that just wasn’t open, things that you couldn’t do”. This past year when she visited Isabela, she said there was no water in her town. “It’s because of the Hurricane. When the winds came through, it blew out some sand in a lake that’s around my town that supplies the water, so then a drought came, and then there was no water. It was because of the hurricane that people were still suffering.” A common theme in Puerto Rico seems to be this struggle with complications from the aftermath of Maria, spanning from a health-care crisis to problems with infrastructure

Emilyann acknowledges that things in Puerto Rico were not at all easy for its residents. “People had the idea that everyone was reunited and they wanted to rebuild Puerto Rico which was good, but it took a long time to get there. People had the right idea and motivation but it wasn’t that easy.”  But, she said, “I don’t really think about the hurricane because I don’t regret that experience. It was tough to see, like I was fine, but other people weren’t really fine.” While Emilyann acknowledges that she was lucky in terms of the hurricane and its destruction, her positive outlook and attitude shows a resilience in disaster survivors that I think should be better reflected in the media portrayal of these individuals.

Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly; a toughness. I think Emilyann, along with many other Puerto Ricans, displayed a great resilience to the disaster that struck them. Instead of viewing the situation negatively, Emilyann had a positive outlook on everything. She knows that things could have been worse for her, but she still struggled through losing power for long periods of time, she had trouble getting in contact with family in the aftermath, and she watched a hurricane that destroyed her community. After all of that, she still does not regret the experience because ultimately she grew closer to her family and her community. She said the hurricane is something that is always in the back of her mind that she does not really bring forward, so when I asked about the two year anniversary of the hurricane, she said “I was also glad that it [the anniversary] happened, that it’s been a year that has past and also, it was better [in Puerto Rico] a year after, and people wanted it to be better than it was before the hurricane.”

After the whole experience, she ultimately says, “It’s something I will never forget.”

The Media Coverage Surrounding Hurricane Maria

In September 2017, disaster struck Puerto Rico when it’s residents were hit with one of the deadliest hurricanes the island had ever seen. Yet, many people in the United States, myself included, were not entirely aware of the damage caused by this category 5 hurricane, let alone the aftermath and troubles that are still facing the island today. While Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, I wondered why fellow Americans know nothing of the history of Puerto Rico, or the pain and suffering that occurred here during and after Hurricane Maria? I am not from Puerto Rico, nor do I have family there, so my knowledge of Hurricane Maria came entirely from media coverage. Now, two years after the hurricane, I want to look at the media coverage surrounding this disaster and how it may, in part, be responsible for this overall lack of understanding. 

One of the most ‘iconic’ moments in the coverage of Hurricane Maria was the press’ coverage of President Donald Trump visiting the survivors in Puerto Rico. Specifically, it was this moment when Trump was throwing paper towels into a crowd of hurricane survivors, almost as if he was shooting t-shirts from a canon at a sports game. I remember seeing this, and thinking that these people needed much more than paper towels to help. Either way, there was insane media coverage on this event, both good and bad, but this does not matter. What matters is the fact that the media cared more about Donald Trump than they did about Puerto Ricans and their actual suffering. The coverage for Puerto Rico only started after Trump’s silence on the issue, and picked up again when Trump started a fight with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. I feel that this is the problem. According to CNN, nearly half of Americans are unaware that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. I believe that fact, paired with a president who was clearly apathetic to the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, lead to a decrease in media attention for this disaster. 

Now, I want to compare the media coverage from Hurricane Maria, to other hurricanes that happened in the United States. According to the Washington Post, “An examination of over 80 print and online media coverage… shows that more than 1,100 news outlets carried stories about Harvey and Irma … while only 500 carried stories on Maria in a similar time frame.” Additionally, “… U.S. media outlets ran 6,591 stories online about Maria one week before the formation of the hurricane through one week after the storm… By comparison, news outlets published 19,214 stories online about Harvey and 17,338 on Irma”. So, I questioned, why was there this lack of coverage? The media responds to what the public wants to hear, and I think these statistics show concrete evidence that the U.S. was not interested in Hurricane Maria. 

Yet, on the two year anniversary of Maria, the media coverage looks a little different. One refreshing take came from The New York Times. They recently published an article titled “Hurricane Maria, 2 Years Later: ‘We Want Another Puerto Rico’” in which they interviewed Puerto Ricans about what they want their future to look like. In this class, I learned that too often, people on the outside are making suggestions and decisions for the people of Puerto Rico, so this article gives them at least a small platform to share with the U.S. exactly what they want for their future. In addition to this, NPR wrote an article titled, “Two Years After Hurricane Maria Hit Puerto Rico, The Exact Death Toll Remains Unknown”. A major issue that surrounded Hurricane Maria was the unknown and misrepresented death toll of individuals who had died in the hurricane. The article states, “…we only have a rough idea of how many people died in and after the storm,” with the article outlining the issues Puerto Ricans had finding medical attention when they needed it. The official death toll made by the government during the time of Maria was 64, and now it hovers around 3,000. But the article states that Puerto Ricans acknowledge that it was somewhere around 4,645. There were many other articles showing the struggles that Puerto Ricans are still facing, and while the articles surrounding the two year anniversary of Hurricane Maria are good, they are clearly not enough. They cannot capture the true pain and suffering Puerto Ricans still have from the devastation that occurred. Puerto Ricans have been handling the destruction of the hurricane by themselves for far too long, and there still seems to be no support for them.

I still have one question though: why exactly should Americans care about Puerto Rico nearly two years after Maria happened? There is no further focus or Harvey or Ima, which happened around the same time. After a little thought though, the answer to this is pretty simple, and has been highlighted throughout. While Harvey and Irma were rebuilt with ease, Puerto Rico seems to be struggling with the same problems they had right after Maria happened. After the hurricane, some parts of Puerto Rico went months without power, they still have to travel far for ‘fresh’ water (even though Puerto Ricans are concerned their drinking water is filled with contaminants), and toxic coal is being dumped into their environment. These survivors are still suffering two years later, and it seems to me that no one in the U.S. cares.

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