The Verse’s Ben Jones gives his thoughts on the devastation left behind by the Caribbean’s Hurricane Maria.
There was an ominous nature to the sky on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico the night before Hurricane Maria hit. A stark redness that engulfed the usually bright blue sky. Meteorologists suspected the worst, but even hours before Maria’s arrival, there was an unwavering uncertainty. It was only after Ricardo Rossello, governor of Puerto Rico, made his emotional ‘farewell’ speech to the island, that there was a certainty of something tragic. Words and phrases were threw out by the media; ‘evacuate or die’, ‘mass flooding’ and ‘worst storm in history’ as the hurricane trudged relentlessly toward Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico is a visually beautiful island, filled with stunning natural rivers and mountains in the south. In the capital, San Juan, one can still see evidence of the island’s original colonisers with beautiful Spanish architecture. It is an island with a profound and evident individual identity, and a proud people. But over the past ten years it has suffered a horrendous economic downfall. It has been in almost continuous recession now for than a decade. Along with this economic crash, it has seen a dramatic decline in population, going from a population of more than 3.8 million in 2005 to 3,4 million in 2016, and that figure will and already has fallen further with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The reason for the island’s economic collapse is not a mystery. The removal of a law, section 936 of the IRS code, enforced by the Clinton administration – an administration that the Puerto Rican people had absolutely no democratic say in.
The effect of Hurricane Maria then, was not just a natural disaster, but an uncovering of an economic crash and a manifestation of failing US policies. As the titanic Hurricane finally hit, power was cut off from the entire island, with 1360 of the 1600 telephone towers cut off. Even in late November, over two months after the hurricane hit, many were still without power. Severe flooding affected much of the island, with high cases of death by drowning. Architecture – including homes – were destroyed. Natural wonders were savaged including the beautiful El Yunque, a tropical rainforest in the north east of Puerto Rico. Thousands were forced out of their homes and evacuated to shelters.
The governor declared it a humanitarian disaster, and this was far from an over-statement. The psychological effect of the hurricane must not be forgotten. A generation of Puerto Ricans, already living through a period of economic crisis, have now witnessed the ordeal of a severe hurricane. So damaging the effect the hurricane has had on people psychologically in the island that The Ponce health sciences university have been volunteering to give psychological services to those affected.
However, the most disturbing of all the damage in the wake of Hurricane Maria is certainly the death toll. The official statement released at this moment is a death toll of 66. It is however confirmed over 900 people have been cremated since the disaster. The American government sanctioned 900 hundred bodies to be cremated without being physically examined. The absence information on the death toll has meant families have been unable to claim for support from federal relief aid. This is only where the laugh-ability of the US government’s response to the disaster begins, with Donald Trump, upon his visit to the US territory, boasting about a low death toll.
When looking upon the US response to the damages caused by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, one may be surprised at the fact that the island is US territory, in which citizens of the island are all US citizens, and have free movement across the states. While the islanders sought desperately for aid, without food, electricity, power or clean running water, Donald Trump revisited the hideously ignorant stereotype used in his anti-immigration campaign, of Latin Americans being lazy, by stating in a Tweet that Puerto Ricans ‘…want everything done for them’. He was golfing while he sent this tweet… And the president, of whom no Puerto Rican voted, upon visiting the island, then proceeded to throw a piece of toilet roll at a crowd in a supposed symbol of solidarity and aid…
Furthermore, it was recently declared that, in the wake of the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s electrical system is too become privatised. This is just another example of an opportunity for corporations to exploit a crumbling nation. Prices of electricity will rise and when the next hurricane inevitably hits the island, the process of recovery will be slow and painful.
I visited the island in the New Year. I noticed that against the backdrop of the beautiful mountains, rivers and beaches, there is evidence of neglect everywhere. Still months after the hurricane, there are no working street lights, there are pot holes in the roads, there are no traffic lights, electrical cables lay across the streets not repaired, and homes are still left damaged. The citizens are left to pick the pieces with almost no help at all from governmental bodies.
In many cases it seems to take a natural disaster for the world to be exposed to the racism and political hypocrisy of our time, and this is a perfect example.
Featured image: Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico.(Photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos/PRNG-PAO)