CIDRA, Puerto Rico
Everywhere you look, you see the devastation left by Hurricane Maria. People are dying because of the slow response to the emergency. This new crisis could be the ultimate one for Puerto Rico, which has already had quite a few. And while this one was caused by natural events, political decisions are making it worse.
More than a week after the Category 4 hurricane and its 155 mph winds crushed Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, I was finally able to leave my rural home here on Thursday to go to San Juan, looking for news about my co-workers and family members. I’d been without Internet and TV since the storm, so I thought that my area had received the greatest hit. But driving 30 miles on the main expressway to the capital, I saw that all of Puerto Rico is in great trouble.
Everyone has a story to tell. My grandparents lost the cabin that’s been their home for 40 years to the 200 mph gusts of Maria. The cabin had stood up to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Georges in 1998. My own house, where I spent the scariest hours of my adult life during the storm, was completely flooded. For 10 hours, we had to take turns holding the door shut, because the wind was tearing it apart, while we constantly swept water out through a small gap underneath it. About 50 huge trees fell on the road to my house, and a brigade of 20 neighbors and relatives helped us cut through them to get out. We had all felt secure, part of a middle- and working-class rural neighborhood, mostly with concrete houses. But nobody was really safe from Maria. No water, no energy, no Internet or phone connections.
More than a week after the hurricane, most Puerto Ricans are still basically stranded. Almost 20 deaths have been officially announced, though there are reports that the death toll could be at least 10 times as high . The entire island lost power in the storm; as of Thursday, almost no one had it back yet.
In hospitals and homes for the elderly, people are dying because of the lack of medicine and electricity for ventilators, dialysis equipment and other survival tools. They will keep dying until they’re rescued or power is restored.
Paradise is lost here: The classical Puerto Rican postcards’ green palm trees may not be seen again for many years. Our tropical-island scenery, one of our best assets, has changed — trees have been shredded and blown down everywhere. Nature, as generous and resilient as it is, can’t quickly recover from such a disaster. Our climate is already different: The humidity that usually comes from the abundant foliage in the dense, thick forest is gone. No quick marketing campaign can solve the problems Puerto Rico’s tourism industry will face.
But the outcome of this crisis will not be the same for everyone. The most vulnerable — those who even before Maria didn’t have a penny in their pockets because of the lack of jobs and years of government austerity measures — are now in even worse straits than the rest of us.
The share of people living in poverty will rise. It was already 43.5 percent before the storm, the worst among U.S. states and territories. People who lost their roofs to Maria will look for ways for their families to survive, and sleeping under a bridge might seem like the only option for some of them. You can already hear it on the streets: Migration to the mainland United States, which had been increasing during the past decade of economic problems, will speed up.
After 11 years of economic recession and fiscal crisis, caused by incompetent politicians from the two main political parties here and an outdated economic strategy that led Congress to impose a fiscal control board, Puerto Rico faces an impossible situation. There are no more patches to fix our problems.
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who came to power with the promise of reforms and government efficiency, is being tested thoroughly right now. People are losing patience with the pace of fuel distribution, the failure of all communications systems and their backups, and the loss of lives in the aftermath. President Trump said this past week that Rosselló had told him “the entire federal workforce is doing great work in Puerto Rico, and I appreciated his saying it. And he’s saying it to anybody that will listen.” But the takeover by federal agencies is clearly not running as smoothly as officials claim.
Now Rosselló has a choice between simply doling out federal aid for the rest of his term, or leading and establishing a sustainable and endogenous economic path for the island and its most vulnerable populations at this dire moment. He doesn’t have much room to maneuver with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials acting as the gatekeepers for all the resources coming in.
Talk-radio analysts here are calling for martial law. The U.S. military is helping distribute gas, food, medical supplies and other essentials, but this rescue mission can’t be allowed to turn into an occupation. Puerto Ricans are not savages in need of an army, and we have a long tradition of rejecting U.S. military interventions. The island was first seized from Spain as a war trophy; we struggled for years to reclaim Vieques from the U.S. Navy. On Thursday, two water trucks were escorted by military trucks and two helicopters to my town in the middle of the day. We don’t need this flashy show of force.
Will the photos and videos of the storm’s devastation be what the world needs to see to prompt action and solidarity, in spite of our political limbo? A political crisis, a fiscal crisis, an economic crisis. Add to that now an infrastructure and environmental crisis. Puerto Ricans are tired of even pronouncing the word. Many change the channel when they hear it on the news. But we have seen our daily lives hopelessly deteriorating, and after Maria, everything around us is truly depressing.
I am a journalist. My news organization, the Center for Investigative Journalism , started publishing again this past week after going dark for several days because of the hurricane. I can’t wait to ask: Who will control the design of that new Puerto Rico that U.S. politicians and government officials are promising? Who will build it? Who will benefit from the crisis money? Is the money going to boost foreign multinationals, as in past decades, or will it support local capital and commerce? Before Maria, the control board was in charge. On Thursday, FEMA was in charge. Now, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan is in charge. When you think there is no more room for the island’s colonial status to cause problems, a new opportunity presents itself. Will everybody keep looking away?
Even Trump, who declared earlier this year that U.S. taxpayers shouldn’t “bail out” Puerto Rico and then made a point after the hurricane of insisting that Wall Street be paid back for debts it holds here, is coming. What will his visit on Tuesday produce, besides a new circus?
Puerto Rico needs help to manage the immediate emergency. And we need money from the federal government, from international foundations, from our diaspora. But we also need to be allowed to decide where to invest those resources and quickly start the path to rebuilding, for Puerto Ricans and by Puerto Ricans. This natural disaster should not be an opportunity for the same people who have caused our economic disaster, who have been benefiting from our tax-exempt bonds, our industrial decrees and our generous subsidies — which somehow always land in the pockets of foreign multinationals, vulture funds and millionaires, keeping us in the top jurisdictions for inequality in the world.
Let’s recover and rebuild another way. Or this latest crisis will surely go down as the worst.
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