Hurricane Maria: Searching for Answers, Finding More Questions

*This is a collaborative blog post, created by: Sakshi Kumar, Neha Marolia, Michael Griffin, Luke Edelman, Catherine White, and Katie Sullivan  

Maria’s Story:

The story of Hurricane Maria officially began on September 16, 2017 when it wasn’t even called Hurricane Maria yet. At 11 a.m. that morning, four days before landfall, it was called “Potential Tropical Cyclone 15.” It wasn’t until 5 p.m. later that day that it was newly named “Tropical Storm Maria.” The next day, it was deemed a hurricane and the first hurricane watch for Puerto Rico was issued on September 18.

Courtesy of the New York Times

Maria landed in Puerto Rico on September 20. On this day, 20 inches of rain fell, the whole island lost power, and 80-90% of the structures were destroyed in some towns. The next day, President Trump issued a state of emergency for Puerto Rico. Three days after landfall, 85% of the Puerto Rico cell towers did not work, and on September 26, 44% of Puerto Rico lacked drinking water.

On September 27, the Puerto Rican government announced the death toll as 16 people–note that it wasn’t until six days after landfall that this was updated/released. On September 28, 70% of the hospitals were also not functioning. On October 2, the Puerto Rican secretary of public safety said the death toll was probably higher than estimated.

The next day, Trump visited Puerto Rico for the first time and acted in the famous “paper towel throwing” scene. Additionally, the death toll rose–having been updated for the first time in six days–to 34 people.

Regarding the death toll, however, Trump said, “Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here and what is your death count? Sixteen people, versus in the thousands,” he says. “You can be very proud.”

While the storm’s rage is technically over, the story of Hurricane Maria is certainly not finished, especially for those who experienced its effects firsthand. Even now, about six months after the storm came and went, we find ourselves wondering whether we can point to any “end” in Maria’s story. Uncertainty about whether or not a death ought to be categorized as hurricane-related when a person dies from conditions created by the hurricane created much confusion and miscounting/misreporting of death tolls during and after Hurricane Maria. We have found that this issue of blurred lines muddling categorization reappears as we attempt to delineate a clear and linear beginning, middle, and end to Maria’s story.

An article from the Washington Post explains that as of March, only two out of every five residents who have applied for assistance from FEMA have received any such aid–nearly 58,000 homes on the island have blue tarps for roofs as they await some kind of federal assistance, and more than a handful of entire neighborhoods remain without power. In January, The Conversation reported that Puerto Rico’s governor ordered a review of the causes of death for those who died after Hurricane Maria. The article explains the importance of an accurate death count: “An accurate death count could be used to inform policies, supplement requests for aid in the national and international context and inform local governments as they prepare for future natural disasters that may impact Puerto Rico.”

Given that Puerto Rico does not hold political power in Congress, accurate demonstration of the need after Maria through valid statistics is vital. As The Conversation explains, though, revision of the death count results in mentally and emotionally taxing interviews with Puerto Rican families, requiring interviews and questions surrounding the grim details of these tragic deaths.

As Puerto Rico struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria on so many levels, we find it impossible to say that there’s an “end” to the story of this storm. Unfortunately, for those who have lived through the devastation of Maria, there will likely be no real “end” to this hurricane as its impact percolates through the fibers of their lives and settles into some place in their memory for the long term.

Impact of Maria:

To go into further depth of these effects, the impact of Hurricane Maria, both on humans and on the environment, has been exceptional. The storm swept across Puerto Rico, all the while uprooting trees, destroying weather stations, and ripping roofs off of homes. 100% of the island’s power was cut, and access to clean water and food became limited for the majority of the population. Torrential downpours and flash floods birthed by the cyclone further intensified the already extensive destruction of homes transforming them into debris to float down the flooded streets. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, and many families lost everything to the floods that followed the storm itself.

In many areas, the flooding reached as high as waist height, and consistently was packed with sewage. These sewage rivers acted as obstacles for people when they had to set out to acquire fresh water or gas. Nearly 50% of Puerto Rico’s population are below the poverty line, and less than 1% of the population had flood insurance. Maria disproportionately affected the poorest of Puerto Rico’s residents, as they don’t have the resources on hand to help them rebuild and recover from the devastation. This population will likely be the last people to regain water access and electricity.

As of March 2, 2018, more than 200,000 of Puerto Rico’s residents are still without power. The blackout has become the largest blackout in the history of the United States. After the storm hit, it took nearly five weeks for public schools to reopen. Many of them were converted into community centers and shelters, but most had no power. Since hospitals also suffered from a lack of power, people couldn’t get medical treatment. Dialysis treatments were hooked up to generators, and likewise respirators couldn’t function without electricity.

Now on record as the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years, Maria has caused $94 billion in damage. If that weren’t bad enough, Puerto Rico had been facing an economic recession for a decade already and was billions of dollars in debt before the hurricane hit. This is crippling in of itself, but the effects will perhaps be felt most harshly by the people. While the official death toll rests at 64 people, the aftermath of the storm has brought that number to as many as 1,000 fatalities. That’s not to mention the psychological damage wrought by the storm as well.

All of this damage and heartache brought about by the storm has brought to light the cruel and established disregard for Puerto Rico and its 3.5 million US residents. While Puerto Rico is considered a territory of the United States, its aforementioned poverty is almost double that of Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state. Going all the way back to 2008, 34,000 homes have been foreclosed on and 5,424 families were displaced in 2016 alone. According to the Insular Cases regarding territories gained by the US following the Spanish-American War, congress owns Puerto Rico. This means that they can be ruled without being granted the constitutional rights afforded to the states, and so as a consequence, medicare and Medicaid programs are hampered. The Insular cases effectively render the residents of Puerto Rico second-class citizens.

It is important to note that Hurricane Maria also affected the US Virgin Islands, St. Croix, Dominica, the British Virgin Islands, and Lesser Antilles. Our decision to focus on Puerto Rico was influenced solely by the need to reign in the scope of this post.

Art Produced in Maria’s Wake:

Art created by Maria victims has become a major product of these impacts on Puerto Rico. Two examples of art that have emerged in the wake of the storm are visual exhibitions along with tarot cards, both portraying disaster and the aftermath of the storm. Although much of the aftermath is focused upon in the artwork, the both/and is present while also alluding to the “beforemath” issues Puerto Rico has faced as a territory. Themes of isolation and government abandonment are also present within both artworks leading to a larger political statement. In an article entitled “The Artists Representing Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria,” writer Dyllan Furness highlights eight artists from Puerto Rico who received an invitation by art organizations to exhibit their artwork in Miami, just around the same time Hurricane Maria made landfall. There are two artists in particular worth mentioning, especially in terms of our course’s context.  

Elizabeth Robles’s artwork portrays the difficulty regarding living conditions, the struggle of survival, and the pathos appeal of the brave residents that were affected by the storm. She states, “I did a performance in the poor neighborhoods behind Wynwood. I painted the cracks in the sidewalk and sprayed them twith graffiti. The cracks showed me where to paint…Sometimes just to wait and walk is a political act.”

By acting upon a performance in the Miami area, Roble is alluding to all the issues that have been present in Puerto Rico and have also gotten worse due to the storm. Similarly, when discussing difficulties, Rafael Vargas Bernard portrays seeping water in his sculptures, a component directly related to a struggle when overcoming a natural disaster. The sculpture speaks volumes about government fraud. Like the physical seeping/loss of water, public funds “seep” through the government and are then manipulated and misappropriated in the preservation of infrastructure. According to Bernard, “the federal and local government had no intention, or were incapable of resolving the immediate emergency.”

Jo Cosme’s tarot cards also reflect upon political corruption that has been caused by Maria’s aftermath. The tarot card titled, El Escombro, translating to Debris, portrays also the cyclical movement of the accumulation of water which leads to flooding. This has been correlated to the government not taking care of the debris, even when residents pay taxes for it to be taken care of. By the residents not receiving the help that they expected, it showcases the ignorance along with the lack of fairness and justice transmitted by the U.S. government.

The tarot card titled El Exodo represents to the leaving or “forcing out” of residents due to the storm. Elizabeth Robles states, “It wasn’t easy to leave Puerto Rico, to leave my family, to come here and do art.” As this action of hers was voluntary, it served a purpose in order for her to share her story and shed light onto the issues Puerto Rico was facing. By alluding towards a pathetic appeal of leaving one’s home, the tarot card itself serves as a performance to showcase the hardship and difficulty the residents faced.

It is worth noting that Jo Cosme has chosen to adorn each card in her tarot deck with a black and white Puerto Rican flag. This blacked out version of the flag has its origins as a symbol of mourning and resistance in Puerto Rico, first gaining attention most notably in 2016 when the famous painting of the Puerto Rican flag on a door in Old San Juan was painted over in black and white instead of the usual red, white and blue coloring. Here’s an excerpt from the open letter released by the group of artists responsible for repainting the flag in black and white:

“Our laws, our politicians, and courts have not represented the interests of the Puerto Rican people. Replacing the colors with black (which is the result of the absence of LIGHT) creates a new discussion. Ours is a proposal for RESISTANCE; it is not pessimistic, it discusses the death of these powers, but hope is still present in the three white stripes that symbolize the individual’s rights and their capacity to reclaim and create their rights.” The whole letter is available here.

Cycling back to concepts of how “memory operates as an alternation between retrospection and anticipation, that is itself, for better or worse, a work of art” can be tied back to Roach’s core ideas and concepts. Tarot cards usually serve the purpose of being futuristic but in this case, the deck plays a different role. Instead of predicting the future alone, the exhibitions along with the tarot cards serve as art in order to reflect upon the aftermath of the hurricane. Anticipation in this sense is desiring political change along with resources in order to sustain and better the lives of the residents who have been affected.

So what? Who cares?:

As a group, we have been struggling with notions of both beginnings and ends in terms of Hurricane Maria and the devastation surrounding the storm. If we can question when the storm’s story ends as its devastation continues, can we not also question when it begins, since its devastation may not have been so catastrophic if the island of Puerto Rico had not been in economic and infrastructural disrepair prior to the storm? If care is the antidote to violence, might the magnitude of a disaster like this be decreased through smaller-scale acts of care given against smaller-scale acts of violence before a terrible violence like this has the chance to happen?

In light of the research we’ve conducted in crafting this post, we feel it is obvious that something went terribly wrong regarding the treatment of Puerto Rico during Maria, as well as before and after the storm. In the research for this post alone, we’ve found that even the simple location of facts about Hurricane Maria and its impact on Puerto Rico is difficult as the event is shrouded in misinformation. Because of this ambiguity of information, the level of both civil and media attention is altered, affecting the level of coverage it receives.

Some believe the island would receive better care if it were an official state as part of the United States, while others advocate for Puerto Rican independence as an autonomous country. While the six of us are unqualified to say which of these options (or perhaps some other option altogether) would be the best course of action for Puerto Rico, we feel it more than reasonable to say that something ought to change so that Puerto Rico might receive the care that its people deserve.

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