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.