Puerto Rico’s Tragedy Was Years in the Making
PUERTO RICO—The morning that Hurricane María began destroying Puerto Rico, we thought that, instead of raindrops, rocks were falling from the sky. We thought that the wind would flatten our homes. We thought we had known what a category-five hurricane would sound like. We were wrong.
After Hurricane María, the Puerto Rico where I have lived for 23 years no longer exists. Telephone poles lie broken in the streets. Mountains on the island look as if a fire burned away their trees. Hurricane-force winds wiped out our electrical grid, as well as more than 85 percent of cellphone towers. More than a week after landfall, thousands have yet to discover if family members are safe and alive. They gather around battery-operated radios, hoping to learn something about their loved ones.
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But first, let’s make something clear: This disaster began to unfold in Puerto Rico way before Hurricane María arrived.
It began when the austerity measures were imposed on our island last year, making serious cuts to infrastructure, health and housing.
It began with the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, known as the Jones Act, mandating that all goods and passengers must come to Puerto Rico on U.S. ships, a regulation that has been strangling our economy for decades.
It began in 1898, when the United States invaded our island but didn’t grant us representation in Congress, robbing us of a voice in times of catastrophe.
We’re told the federal government is sending help, but we don’t see it. And, in the meantime, Donald Trump, our president, is tweeting about football, reminding the world how Puerto Rico’s tragedy hurts Wall Street or castigating San Juan’s mayor as she tries to get relief for her people. If Hurricane María had landed in the U.S. mainland, I doubt Trump would be tweeting about football.
“I cannot sleep because the windows sound like they are about to explode,” I texted my best friend at 3:26 a.m. on September 21st. A few hours later we lost phone service. By that time, María had torn the roofs off thousands of homes near my own, and thousands more were about to be destroyed entirely. We wouldn’t regain communication until days later.
Everybody has a story. A woman named Lourdes told me she escaped her home when the ceiling began to crack, and walked through the hurricane with a two-year-old in her arms to the nearest shelter. A man who goes by José confided that he has terminal cancer, and he lost the only home he had to spend his last days. And a woman named María explained to me that she’d been in a shelter since the Friday before the hurricane, and still doesn’t know where her family is or if they’re safe.
Meanwhile, in the town of Humacao, people are using chalk to write on city streets, “Help, we need water and food,” with the hope that helicopters will read the messages and save them.
The government tells us that help and provisions are arriving, but it doesn’t feel that way. The shelves in our grocery stores are empty, people are sleeping at gas stations as they wait in line for a few gallons of gas, and finding bottles of water these days is an impossible mission.
And yet the government keeps telling us not to worry.
We would feel more comforted by the federal government’s assurances if it had done more— done anything at all, really—to prevent this catastrophe. Because while Washington D.C. couldn’t stop María in its tracks, its treatment of Puerto Ricans as second class citizens is what upgraded this hurricane from natural disaster to human tragedy.