“I fear that a great storm is going to come and kill me,” says Silvia Ramos. The 47 year old Puerto Rican explains this to me via a WhatsApp call that is so low quality, we might as well have been talking with the world’s worst walkie talkies.
Hurricane Maria tragically struck the island of Puerto Rico 2 years ago. Ramos explains how people of the island were unprepared and unexpecting of the damages brought along with this storm. Poor phone quality aside, Ramos very explicitly recalls her experience in the midst of the hurricane and how she had to be “muy fuerte para mi familia” (very strong for my family).
Ramos was fortunate enough to live in an area where the storm didn’t have as much of a physical impact on her home. Because of this, she took in seven other family members, including her 89 year old aunt, and provided them with food and shelter. She recalls this as being one of the most stressful times of her life.
“I remember always being a little hungry…if serving myself less food meant that someone else could eat, then that’s what I had to do. I had to do what was right for my family”
Ramos had to learn to handle her own fears during Maria. She felt forced to put on a brave face for the sake of her family. She still has many vivid memories that haunt her about the devastation and anxiety felt during Hurricane Maria. Like Ramos, many other Puerto Rican natives are still having a hard time coping with everyday life. Across the island, more than three million people saw their communities devastated — many lost their homes, jobs, family members, and friends.
After the storm hit on September 20, 2017, there was an increase in anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder across the island. When people are more focused on their immediate needs like food and shelter, their mental health takes a backseat. Ramos explains how she refused to feel sorry for herself because she had to make sure her family survived. Silvia was working in a public school as a special education assistant at that time. The school was turned into a shelter to house hurricane survivors for 3 months. Having lost financial income was a great burden for Silvia because she was still responsible for seven other family members. Luckily, Silvia’s husband was able to bring in some income to the home, but it still wasn’t enough. Silvia’s family was very reliant on the help they received from their family members living on mainland USA. Without the help of her family in the mainland, Silvia doubted that she would be able to sustain her family in Puerto Rico.
Natural disaster has significant mental health effects even for people who have more financial resources than many Puerto Ricans. A study conducted by the University of Albany after Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012 found “a significant increase in emergency room visits for substance abuse problems, psychosis, mood disorders and suicides throughout the city.”
The mental health toll of Maria on Puerto Ricans is still palpable to this day. A recent study came out that surveyed public school students about how Hurricane Maria impacted them. The study, conducted by the Puerto Rico Department of Education, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Hurricane Assessment and Referral Tool, and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), found that more than 7% of youths reported symptoms attributable to post-traumatic stress disorder after the storm.
As a result of the natural disaster, 83.9% of youths saw houses damaged, 57.8% had a friend or family member leave the island, 45.7% reported damage to their own homes, 32.3% experienced food shortages, and 16.7% still had no electricity five to nine months after the hurricane. In addition, 30% reported that they perceived their lives or the lives of people they loved to be at risk, which, according to The Guardian, is a strong predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Two years later, Silvia still “holds fear in her heart”. A lot of her family members that were originally staying with her eventually moved to mainland USA. Silvia is back to work in the public school and back to her prior “normal routine”. Financially, she is in a much better place, but her mental health is something she still struggles with. Silvia also believes she has PTSD. She is in constant fear that another storm is going to hit the island, and leave her completely vulnerable. She states she is more anxious now than ever before, especially during hurricane season. “Last time I was lucky” she states, “but I may not be so lucky next time.”