Puerto Rico: Storm Reporting, Death Count and Government Neglect

The 2018 Atlantic Hurricane season began with a political storm. A careful study of Puerto Rican government records revealed that more than 4600 Puerto Ricans died last year because of Hurricane Maria. Still, the official story remains that only 64 people died. The US response to the humanitarian crisis has been as inadequate as the death toll is incomplete. Tens of thousands of Puerto Rican families are facing the coming 2018 hurricane season with nothing but blue plastic tarps for roofs over their homes and 11,000 homes are without power nine months later. At least 200,000 people left Puerto Rico for refuge in the US as recovery efforts lagged and the economy stagnated. For the 3.3 million Puerto Ricans - who are all American citizens - this has become an epic story of media neglect, popular apathy, and inadequate government response.

History is important. The United States took control of Puerto Rico in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American war. Ethnically, 75% of Puerto Rican’s identify as white, but the European origins are Spanish. Culturally, Puerto Rico is Caribbean with strong ties to the United States. Legally, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated American protectorate. Puerto Ricans are American citizens and have been for over 100 years, but they have no voting representatives in Congress.  Puerto Rico is fully deserving of the equal respect and care of the U.S. government. 

The 2017 hurricane season was the most damaging on record. In the space of weeks, Hurricane Harvey caused billions of dollars of damage in Texas and the loss of over 100 lives; Hurricane Irma cut a path of destruction across the Caribbean through Florida; and then Hurricane Maria crushed Puerto Rico and neighboring islands. 

Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, resulting in the loss of power to all 3.4 million residents on the island. Millions were left without clean drinking water, and thousands of homes were without roofs or completely destroyed. The disruption to life on Puerto Rico continues today - power outages in March and April left almost a million people without electricity for days - resulting in the longest lasting blackout in U.S. history. Experts warn that the electric grid has not been properly rebuilt but only haphazardly patched. Many are still without power, adequate shelter, or access to fresh water at the start of the 2018 hurricane season!

The federal response to the devastation Hurricane Maria caused Puerto Rico was slow and half-hearted compared to the rapid relief efforts in Texas after Harvey and Florida after Irma. Instead of rolling up its sleeves and setting things to right, the Trump Administration went on a PR offensive attacking Puerto Rico for its debt problems and criticizing the local leaders for asking for aid. When President Trump finally made a trip to Puerto Rico to inspect the storm damage, the trip stayed in the resort areas along the coast. The iconic photo from the trip was of Donald Trump tossing rolls of paper towels to individuals impacted by the hurricane - as if that was a meaningful response from their government. When asked to respond to pleas for government assistance for the overwhelmed citizens of San Juan, President Trump famously complained that Puerto Ricans want “everything done for them.”

Trump’s white nationalist politics and the long standing U.S. indifference to conditions in Puerto Rico resulted in upwards of 4600 fatalities instead of the official count of 64.  Because of U.S. government inaction, many died as a result of the loss of medical services when the power grid failed, from unsafe or unhealthy conditions, from the loss of safe drinking water, and loss of critical infrastructure. This is unacceptable. The U.S. claims to be the “protector” of Puerto Rico and cannot shrug off this responsibility. Maria was an epic storm, but the human disaster is caused by the prejudice and neglect of the U.S. government. Puerto Rico deserves the same degrees of emergency relief and long term support as Houston and other cities after Harvey and Irma.

Call To Action

It’s time to begin to set things right. Puerto Rico now faces a new hurricane season with an inadequate power grid and many homes that still do not have safe roofs. It’s also time for Congress to step up and look both backwards and forward.

Call your Senators and Representativesin Congress and urge them to:

  1. Pass legislation to support the re-construction of Puerto Rico to rebuild the damage caused by Hurricane Maria and to help make its defenses against future hurricanes stronger. 
  2. Tell Congress to pressure the administration to work with the government of Puerto Rico to provide an accurate and meaningful count of the deaths attributable to Maria and its aftermath. The death toll in Puerto Rico should be counted in the same manner as the death toll in Texas.
  3. Congress must investigate the inadequate response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico. We should look at why cities like Houston received immediate and massive aid while the same was lacking for Puerto Rico.