March 26, 2018

Hurricane Maria and U.S. Failure

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

In September 2017, the Caribbean and southeastern parts of the United States experienced two devastating hurricanes: Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.

Hurricane Irma – a category 5 storm with winds upwards of 175 mph – caused physical destruction, flooding, and loss of life (~134 total) throughout Barbuda (95% destruction), Puerto Rico (1 million without electricity), Florida (6.5 million homes without electricity), and elsewhere.

Two weeks later, on September 20, Hurricane Maria – a category 4 storm with winds of 150 mph – followed a similar trajectory through the Caribbean. Already reeling from the effects of Irma, Maria further devastated Puerto Rico, where it made landfall; the majority of phone lines (cell and landlines) and internet communication was down (85% inoperable), the agricultural sector was destroyed, 230,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and the Guajataca Dam, holding 11-billion gallons of water, failed. In addition, the entire island lost power.

The U.S. government’s limited and slow response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico highlight the second-class status of commonwealth entities. Although U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans have limited access to the rights of citizenship.

A colony of the United States since the late nineteenth century, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 under the Jones Act. In the 1950s, Puerto Rico became a commonwealth, with autonomy over internal issues. This grants a limited level of self-governance. Although they are U.S. citizens and pay federal taxes – that go to fund agencies like FEMA –Puerto Ricans on the island are unable to vote in presidential elections. Furthermore, in times of crisis (as with natural disasters) response times are often delayed. This is the case for the U.S. Virgin Islands (which was also impacted by Hurricane Maria), Guam, and Samoa.

For many on the mainland, Puerto Ricans are neither seen, nor treated, as citizens of the United States. This has a very real impact on federal responses and aid from various sectors to the island. Unlike support provided to Texas and Florida, FEMA response was slower and limited, less military personnel were dispatched, and Congress took over a month to pass a budget to assist with the disaster. These discrepancies highlight the colonial and racist history of the United States that continues to frame its relations to territories of color (for an extension discussion of this click here).

More than six months later, 11% of Puerto Rico is still without electricity. FEMA ended aid services in January, when estimates suggested that up to 20% of people were unable to access clean water.

This means that for 8 weeks, 3.5 million American citizens were without access to clean water, nutritious food (in some cases any food), or medication and other life-saving devices until power was restored. Full power to the island can take four to six months. It will take even longer to rebuild infrastructure and homes or for jobs to return, particularly in the case of small businesses.

People are drinking and bathing in contaminated water to survive; this includes water from a designated Superfund site that contains industrial chemicals and may cause cancer. Other health issues that have arisen include: vomiting, pink eye, scabies, asthma, and leptospirosis. Because residents need to travel to collect water, others, including family members, have suffered heart attacks and herniated disks from the weight. This video by NowThis outlines the difficulties that Puerto Ricans continue to experience.

The impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria are vast: loss of jobs – which means no money to pay bills or buy necessities –, a lack of clean water, unavailability of food, a growing mental and physical health crisis, and increases in crime (due to desperation or opportunity). In addition, those who can, have chosen to leave the island and migrate to areas within the United States.

Initial failures by the federal government have exacerbated the effects of this major catastrophe. This includes missteps made by FEMA.

According to an article in Politico, unlike preparations for Hurricane Irma in Florida and Hurricane Harvey in Texas, military personnel and “assets” were not in position prior to Maria’s landfall. In addition, there was not a timely appointment of an on-scene commander to coordinate relief efforts. Finally, there was no detailed plan in place, even though the U.S. government knew of Maria’s impact and trajectory four days in advance of it hitting Puerto Rico. In some places – particularly the more inland, rural areas – it took FEMA 6-7 weeks to arrive.

The federal government waited a full week before they began sending supplies; these supplies were further delayed at the docks. At times, truck drivers from rural and mountainous regions were unable to load supplies to these areas due to added bureaucracy. In many cases, private citizens (family members and celebrities) and the nonprofit sector on the mainland of the United States were better coordinated in sending supplies than the federal government. During this time, Puerto Rican government and medical field employees had access to only one meal a day. Others survived off of crackers, cookies, candy, and 8 ounce bottles of water.

The lack of access to food, potable water, medical facilities and the heightened stress of the impacts of the hurricane are taking its toll on people, with mental illness (including PTSD, anxiety, and depression) rates rising. Official numbers on deaths are murky, with suspiciously low numbers reported by FEMA and the Puerto Rican Government. (As of December 5, the official death count is 55). Penn State demographer, Alexis Santos, and an independent epidemiologist, Jeffrey Howard, however, argue that this number is probably closer to 1,085.

This is a humanitarian and ecological disaster; what else does the aftermath of these hurricanes teach us about the importance of colonialism today?


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