When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, I felt as if I had only heard about its arrival, but never about what it left behind. There were pockets of information here and there about the damage that Maria created, but I didn’t truly know what this damage entailed. Growing up in an area without a strong Puerto Rican community before moving to New York City, I had very little connection to the island besides my few years of living in Luquillo as a child.
I found no way to conceptualize the severity of damages, and all I knew was that people were suffering. Even the images I was seeing from my childhood conjured up some type of disconnection. It had been so long since I lived there. I could barely remember what it was like.
But why was I part of the silence surrounding Puerto Rico’s suffering? Was there something blocking public consciousness of the event? It seemed that there was an unintended silence, as people lacked awareness of the issues unfolding in Puerto Rico.
Similar to other hurricanes I had experienced from living in Florida, the shock and preparation for the initial disaster was a giant headline everywhere I turned. People frantically prepared themselves for the worst, but we continued on our daily lives. We were used to hurricanes occurring each year, and so it was never a state of panic in the community. I had never realized, or even considered, the damages following these disasters until one of my friend’s house flooded due to the rain and rising water levels from the storm. Her entire neighborhood was trying to salvage as much as they could, losing important documents, family photos, and in some cases, losing their entire home to the damages. There was no news coverage about this in my town. The storm had passed, and so had the public’s eye.
This example showcases a scaled-down version of the lack of awareness that exists on such issues such as Hurricane Maria. The lack of conversation alone gives us an alarming view as to the ways in which the public eye seems to be looking away. Interestingly enough, when looking at Google’s trending list from 2017, Hurricane Irma was the top Google search and top in global news. Both hurricanes were Category 5, both occurring within the same 2-week period, and both affecting similar areas of the Caribbean. So why is it that Irma has taken a number one spot in global news, yet Maria cannot be found on this list at all? This may be due to Irma’s effect on Florida, a part of the global power that is the United States, while Maria only affected Caribbean islands. This is further supported when looking at Google Trends in the United States.
This first graph shows a comparison web searches from 2017 on Hurricane Irma (in blue) and Hurricane Maria (in red). There is a drastic and clear distinction between the number of searches. I took a step further, and looked into the following two years.
In 2018, it was clear that Hurricane Maria began to gain more traction in regards to its web searches. People became more interested in the topic, spiking around the anniversary, yet Irma still came out on top with higher numbers of searches.
The graph from 2019 shows similar results, but with less and less interest forming (except a small peak around the anniversary), but even this interest in Hurricane Maria seems to be diminished by the interest in Hurricane Irma.
It seemed that one narrative was competing against others— the focus or emphasis of one issue seemed to overshadow other issues that existed. Irma seemed to reside in the spotlight, with Hurricane Maria hiding in the background. And when we consider some of the reasons that Puerto Rico suffered, and how their conditions prior to the storm itself created that, it creates a more alarming understanding with the rich political history that contributed to these damages. The ongoing debt crisis, colonial systems involving political identity, corrupt government, coal ash pollution… these factors were only some of the things that contributed to the disaster that was Hurricane Maria.
We cannot blame individuals of the public though, as there was a spread of misinformation from people of authority. Most notably, President Donald Trump claimed that there were few numbers of deaths, far below one hundred, from Hurricane Maria in September of 2018. He denied the actual death toll of 3,000 people for both hurricanes, although Maria alone was responsible for an approximated 2,975 storm-related deaths.
I realized that if I denied myself an opportunity to learn more about this event, I was no different than those who turned a blind eye to what truly happened. By pushing myself to become better educated on the topic, I dismantled my own unintended ignorance that contributed to the inability of these individuals to receive justice for reparations.
The lack of general public attention to the victims of Hurricane Maria showcases the way in which media manipulates what we are able to see. The constant, daily intake of new media makes it difficult to focus on one event— but this does not mean that something like the recovery of Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria should be put on the back burner.
It is possible to discuss multiple events at once, and we must be conscious of how we may unintentionally contribute to the silence, and how we are influenced by our intake (or lack thereof) of news and media. It is important to demand transparency, ask our own questions, and be aware of what knowledge we lack. In order to shed light on issues such as this, we cannot stand idly by and allow it to happen.