It has been two years since the island was devastated by Maria, the Category 5 storm that caused $40 billion in damage and more than 3,000 deaths.
President Trump attended the climate summit, but after 15 minutes of listening to remarks by other leaders, he left the room. By disregarding the talks, Trump failed again to show concern for a pressing issue that is affecting the United States, from Florida to California, from Texas to Puerto Rico, and even in the Midwest.
I was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In elementary school, I remember being introduced to the issue of climate change and global warming. Back then, I had seen events such as storms and high temperatures but nothing like what we’ve seen recently.
When I went to bed the night of Sept. 19, 2017, I wasn’t expecting that our lives would change overnight with the arrival of Hurricane Maria. The furious 155 mph winds caused flooding, road ruptures, home destruction and deaths. The aftermath of the storm has been the worst part of this event. The consequences of the delayed federal response are evident. More than 30,000 families live in homes without a stable roof, two years after the cyclone.
Although I was one of the fortunate residents whose home was not heavily damaged, my family and I spent more than three months without power. One of our biggest worries was the health of my grandmother. She is a renal patient who receives dialysis treatment three times per week. Because of the volume of people in need and the lack of power supply, my grandmother spent five days without her treatment. Every day in the immediate aftermath, I would wake up with the fear that she wouldn’t make it. As time passed and things got relatively better, that worry eased a little, but not completely.
Before the storm, leaving Puerto Rico to pursue a master's degree was already on my mind. Once the storm hit and I saw how months passed without much progress toward restoration, I finally made the decision to leave. A year after the hurricane, I packed my bags and moved to New York, where I enrolled in the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York and focused on my goal of becoming a journalist.
Still, I worry about the future of my birthplace.
Although Maria forced many Puerto Ricans to take notice of climate change, the U.S. territory had seen signs before the storm.
Starting in May 2015, the island experienced one of the biggest droughts since 1994. Thousands of residents struggled to get water because service was intermittent during the drought, which lasted 80 weeks. Because of the lack of running water, health measures were put in place. Residents were given guidelines on how to store water without spawning breeding pools for mosquitoes, which could lead to diseases.
Coastal erosion also has a negative effect on the economy of the island, which is more than $70 billion in debt. Puerto Rico is famous for its beautiful beaches, making tourism one of the biggest economic sectors. Erosion has diminished beach areas on the island, reducing the number of places that might attract tourists.
Every summer, I visit a vacation resort in the municipality of Humacao with my family. When I was little, we spent hours enjoying the beaches. In August, I tried to visit the same spot where I used to play in the sand but couldn’t. It was covered by water.
Last week, climate change protests took place around the world, including in Puerto Rico. About 600 people held a demonstration in front of “El Capitolio” (Puerto Rico’s Capitol), a location known for being one of the hubs of protests. Previous strikes include the ones that led to the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló after the summer’s government crisis. Two months ago, strikers followed the slogan #RickyRenuncia (Ricky Resign).
Among the group of young activists at the climate change protest was Tristán Queriot Rodríguez Vélez. This 16-year-old is one of the leaders of Puerto Rico’s Youth Climate Strike. Just like me, Queriot is part of the “Yo no me dejo”(I won’t be tamed) generation, also known as the “Maria Generation”: young Puerto Ricans who lived through the destruction of Hurricane Maria. Since our early years, my generation has been witness to the many challenges facing Puerto Rico — financial crisis, corruption, climate impact and more. We have reached the point of no return. Enough is enough.
Experiencing this massive hurricane and the government’s inadequate response to the thousands of deaths and the widespread destruction, as well as the ongoing struggle of coastal residents to save their homes, has opened my eyes. Our leaders must take immediate measures to address climate change.
An analysis by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism says that from 2005 to 2018, the island’s government proposed 45 bills to battle climate change. In May, Rosselló signed a law that focuses on eliminating carbon-based power generation, reducing emissions and developing energy efficiency. At the end of last year, a proposal was introduced to ban coastal construction for 20 years. The problem is that this moratorium is yet to be approved.
Some local and national politicians have awakened to the great challenges posed by climate change. But that’s not enough. Hundreds of bills can be signed, but unless there is concrete and urgent action, generations to come face the prospect of sustained suffering from the intense effects of climate change.