My feelings about Puerto Rico in Hurricane Maria’s aftermath and the politicized issue it has become have been difficult to articulate. I felt particularly compelled to reflect this week, because the week of September 11th is one of reflection. Seventeen years later, we still pause to remember the nearly 3,000 victims who died that day. The names of the fallen are still read aloud at Ground Zero. This tradition is part of our national grieving process. During this period of reflection, how do Puerto Ricans reconcile the disparate treatment of its tragedy? The weather isn’t backed by an extremist agenda. Yet, many died, and the nation hasn’t responded to this as a national tragedy.
So I asked my friends, who are scattered all along the political spectrum: what is a national tragedy to you? Their words and concepts led me to this definition:
(1) any event (2) that results in the death, deprivation of human rights, suffering and/or helplessness (3) of innocent Americans (4) from all walks of life (5) which was preventable (6) or which was unpreventable but made worse by an unwillingness or inability to aid, (7) and changes us for the worse. A national tragedy concealed by the media, ignored or forgotten is a tragedy in itself.
Does the aftermath of Hurricane Maria meet this criteria? Let’s take a look:
(1) any event (2) that results in the death, deprivation of human rights, suffering and/or helplessness
According to my small sample group, cause doesn’t really matter. So, even though Hurricane Maria wasn’t backed by al-Qaeda, its destructive force was enough. It also undeniably resulted in death, although the numbers have been subject to recent criticism (we’ll get to that later), and many in Puerto Rico found themselves suffering and helpless, without adequate shelter, access to food or water, or medication. Their roads and bridges collapsed and flooded, so reaching help was impossible for many.
(3) of innocent Americans (4) from all walks of life
Although many didn’t know this before Maria (and many still don’t), Puerto Ricans are Americans by birth. When discussing immigration with friends, it’s an interesting point of discussion. The argument “everyone is an immigrant unless you’re Native American,” has a caveat. I try to explain that America also got into some mergers and acquisitions, and some American’s didn’t have to go anywhere to become American. Some were acquired. Puerto Ricans are no less patriotic for it, hundreds of thousands have died serving our country in every conflict since World War I.
The names of those who died as a result of Hurricane Maria have not made national news. Their faces have not been televised. But the very nature of a hurricane does not discriminate. Maria tore down everything in her path. Power outages were widespread. Access to life saving resources was woefully limited. This didn’t just affect a single class of citizens, it affected them all.
Check and check.
(5) which was preventable (6) or which was unpreventable but made worse by an unwillingness or inability to aid
Although conspiracy theories abound, no one has been able to prove that a small group of global billionaires control the weather. We can make an argument for global warming, but for arguments sake – let’s assume super storms like Hurricane Maria are unpreventable.
The key here is an unwillingness or inability to render aid. To do that, you need to be aware that aid is needed. So, we consider the foreseeability that Puerto Rico would find itself in peril.
Was it foreseeable that Puerto Rico would be unprepared for Hurricane Maria? Before the storm ever hit, the National Hurricane Center called it “catastrophic.” In August 2017, Just a month before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the New York Times published an article authored by economist Mark Weisbrot titled “Strangling Puerto Rico in Order to Save It.” The article cites the island’s long history of colonialism and the Jones Act as a major cause of its economic problems:
The Puerto Rican economy has already suffered a lost decade — no economic growth since 2005. The poverty rate is 46 percent, and 58 percent for children — about three times that of the 50 states. Unemployment is at 11.7 percent, more than two and a half times the level in the states. Employment has plummeted, and about 10 percent of the population has left the island since 2006 . .
In June 2016 Congress … created a financial oversight and management board to direct Puerto Rico’s finances. This board, to which President Barack Obama appointed four Democrats and four Republicans, has now approved an austerity regimen that, if things go according to plan, envisions a second lost decade — in other words, no economic growth from 2005 through 2024… Puerto Rico’s colonial status appears to be a major reason for the anomaly. If Puerto Rico were an independent country, it could try to make a new start after defaulting on its debt …
Puerto Rico’s international commerce also suffers from a federal law that significantly raises the cost of traded goods and the cost of living there by preventing foreign ships from stopping first at the island before proceeding to a mainland port . . .
For all of these reasons and more, the United States government has a responsibility to contribute to Puerto Rico’s economic recovery.
This wasn’t the only news outlet that reported this information. Democrats and Republicans knew Puerto Rico was broke. They knew they were not financially prepared to address a catastrophe of this magnitude.
A year ago, every news outlet reported on Puerto Rico’s infrastructure problems. These issues were exacerbated by austerity measures, and were obviously not factored into the FEMA response. Puerto Rico was unable to render aid. Was FEMA unwilling or unable? The aid was rendered, but in such a way that rendered it useless to many due to clogged ports, lack of communications, lack of transportation, and etc.
(7) and changes us for the worse. A national tragedy concealed by the media, ignored or forgotten is a tragedy in itself.
Just as I sat down to begin writing these thoughts, an article popped up on my screen. President Trump called “Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success.” The following day, he denied the death toll numbers altogether. Seventeen years after 9/11 we promise to never forget. One year after Hurricane Maria, so many in our nation have already forgotten, or worse, pretended this tragedy never happened at all.
Have we changed for the worse?
I’m not writing this to point a finger at Trump. This article is about an America we believe respectfully mourns its dead and tries to right the wrongs unveiled by tragedy. It’s about trying to understand why Puerto Ricans are excluded from the process of national healing. Nearly as many Americans died on 9/11 as due to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. These people were were just as loved by their families and their communities. The point of this article is to sincerely and respectfully ask why nearly 3,000 people can die on the mainland and it is a national tragedy, but when the same number die in Puerto Rico it’s an “unsung success.” If we can’t reflect on Hurricane Maria as a tragedy, or honor the dead, who are we as Americans and are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past? I just can’t find answers to these questions.
The Numbers and Deniers
A day or two after I started writing this, I blocked a classmate on Facebook. I did so because of his comments on the reported death toll. He took issue with the science behind the numbers. At the time, I was unable to express the pain of having the deaths of thousands in “my community” be denied, especially when there was just so much evidence to support it. I was also hurt that someone I thought was a friend would be so bold in his assertion of doubt, less than a year after this tragedy occurred.
We’ve ticked through the boxes of our informal definition of a national tragedy. It meets all the criteria. So why are we different? I asked him if he would deny how many people died on 9/11, to which he responded, only if the numbers seemed outrageous.
Later, I thought about other kinds of deniers. For example, denying the death of six million Jews in the holocaust is illegal in 16 European countries and in Israel. I wondered if he’d ever asked to see the science behind those numbers? After all, it’s the number – six million – that Holocaust deniers take shots at when attempting to disprove the existence of the Holocaust.
Where did those numbers come from? Yad Vashem, Israel’s principal Holocaust research center, says that early estimates were arrived at by comparing pre-war census data with population estimates made after World War II.
In my search for words to describe the pain caused by the deniers, I found a post by Eleazar D. Melendez, that was able to articulate how I felt better than I’d ever be able to on my own:
They did not die in the hurricane.
They died in pain, at home, of kidney failure unable to access the dialysis clinic for weeks.
They died, gasping for hours near the end, when the oxygen tank they needed to breathe gave out.
They died in the dark and the heat of unsanitary ICU units, of burns or gunshot wounds received before the hurricane that they almost certainly would have survived otherwise.
They died, burning up with fever, of leptospirosis from being in touch with flood waters during the effort to save their neighbors.
They died in fear and confusion after being forced to go off their regular medication.
They died of heat stroke.
They died of diseases of antiquity, in a crisis of neglect unworthy of the greatest, wealthiest and most powerful nation in human history.
They died. But we lived. And we remember.