THE CARIBBEAN • The Aftermath of Hurricane Maria: A Never-ending Nightmare for Puerto Rico

The year 2017 has been marked by a stunning number of disasters, including multiple hurricanes devastating numerous islands in the Caribbean and the southern United States. When Hurricane Irma developed in early September, Puerto Rico managed to avoid significant destruction, however, less than two weeks later, they were not so lucky in avoiding Hurricane Maria. Maria, the worst storm Puerto Rico has seen in over a century, struck the island on September 20, 2017, leaving behind a path of widespread damage and destruction. 55 people have been reported dead, though many – including the mayor of San Juan – fear the death toll is much higher, possibly in the hundreds. Nearly two months later, the harsh reality of Hurricane Maria’s aftermath is still visible throughout the entire country and Puerto Ricans are beginning to wonder when – and if – this nightmare will ever end.

The Realities of Hurricane Maria’s Devastation

After Maria struck, countless homes were destroyed and practically the entire island’s electricity was wiped out, affecting approximately 3.4 million people. The damage was so extensive that even now, nearly two months later, a large majority of residents and businesses are still completely without electricity. Without electricity, that means no way to refrigerate foods, not being able to use fans or air conditioning to escape the hot weather, and virtually no way for businesses to be operational. Moreover, hospitals are facing a dire situation: without electricity, medications are expiring, essential equipment is unusable, and providing life-saving care is becoming increasingly unmanageable. Even more troubling are the reports claiming it could be more than 6 months before power is restored to the entire island. Many Puerto Ricans are still struggling to source even the basic necessities; for example, even several weeks after the hurricane, nearly half of Puerto Ricans lacked access to drinking water, leading to concerns of a growing public health crisis. Without electricity for several more months and limited basic necessities and health care, it is easy to see why many fear the death toll will only keep rising.

An Economy in Crisis

For the last decade, Puerto Rico’s economy has been dealing with a serious financial crisis. In fact, earlier in 2017, the government of Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy – which was, in fact, the largest government bankruptcy in U.S. history – resulting from their struggles with $74 billion USD of debt. With an already fraught economy, Hurricane Maria’s devastating effects are pushing Puerto Rico to an even more perilous position. It has been estimated that the extent of the damage could be up to $55 billion USD and around $40 billion USD in lost economic output; combined with the fact that many businesses and people have been out of work for months and will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future, there is sadly no end in sight for Puerto Rico’s economic struggles.

Puerto Ricans are Americans, too
Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, meaning residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens. However, many are questioning whether the federal government views Puerto Ricans as subordinate to all other Americans, perpetuating the harmful legacy of treating it as a mere “colony” of the U.S. Critics point to not only the delay of having the administration acknowledge the scope of the devastation but, more importantly, the significant delay in getting relief and supplies to the island while residents struggled to survive. The very slow timeline for rehabilitating the island after the hurricane certainly warrants the question of commitment by the federal government to aid Puerto Rico. Furthermore, while President Donald Trump pledged his administration’s support to the island, he also “lashed out on social media”, blaming Puerto Rico’s financial struggles and broken infrastructure on the islands’ challenges to properly recover. Many protested that this lack of appropriate response and the administration’s poor handling of the efforts would have never happened anywhere else in the country. Rep. Darren Soto even went as far to say, “The Trump administration was slow off the mark…We’ve invaded small countries faster than we’ve been helping American citizens in Puerto Rico…”.  In October, just a few short weeks after the hurricane, President Trump warned that relief workers will not stay “forever”, essentially threatening to withdraw assistance from Puerto Rico.

The Long Road to Recovery

For years now, Puerto Rico’s economy and infrastructure has been deteriorating. Unfortunately, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the island is now facing a dire humanitarian crisis. While President Trump has attempted to convey that his administration is committed to assisting Puerto Rico and that recovery efforts are going well, many, including the Governor of Puerto Rico, are criticizing his messaging and pointing to the grim reality Puerto Ricans are currently facing. Regrettably, much still remains unknown about when exactly electricity will return to the entire island, how long assistance will be provided for, or the fate of the island’s economy; however, it is clear that Puerto Rico’s road to recovery will certainly be long and challenging.

Article written by Sarah THOMPSON



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