Survivors of one of the worst storms in Puerto Rican history tell how they turned to mutual aid in the face of government neglect and incompetence.
Four years ago, Hurricane María made landfall in the Puerto Rican archipelago on September 20, 2017, leaving no part of the land unscathed. Hurricane triggered floods and mudslides, washed away roads, destroyed tens of thousands of homes, farms and businesses, the biggest blackout in US history (the second largest in the world), cut communications, led to widespread shortages of food, clean water and gasoline, and was ultimately responsible for thousands of deaths.
The government of Puerto Rico accepted 2,975 as the official hurricane death number based on a study by George Washington University. However, a similar study by Harvard University puts that toll at 4,645. The actual death toll is probably much higher.
Zaira Arvelo Alicea and her husband, Juan Carlos, survived the hurricane by floating for 16 hours on a patched air mattress. They were eventually rescued and taken to a small apartment where they stayed with a group of 22 evacuees for two nights before walking for miles from their ruined home in Aguadilla to a family member’s home in Aguada, two towns located on the west coast of the main island of Puerto Rico.
Arvelo Alicea was the first person I interviewed for the oral history book Mi María: Surviving the storm, voice of Puerto Rico (Haymarket Books, September 2021), a collection of 17 first-person stories that explore what it means to be an American citizen in a colonial context, how communities come together in the aftermath of disaster, and how precariousness is exacerbated for those living on the front lines of the climate crisis.
As Arvelo Alicea recounted the slow journey to the family, describing cars that had been caught in a seawater storm and balanced upside down along the highway, she stopped to ask: ” How do you describe the smell of rotting bodies? Our conversation for the day ended there as I turned off the recorder and grabbed her hand over the table.
Hurricane María was – and still is – a place of trauma for all who survived. But that trauma includes not only the fierce storm that struck the archipelago for more than 30 hours, but also the long months, and now years, of inadequate government relief and assistance intended to help those in crisis.
Arvelo Alicea’s story opens the Mi Maria oral history collection, a collaboration with the association Witness voice. Throughout the project, I worked with over 100 students at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez where I teach, and traveled – with co-editor Marci Denesiuk – through Puerto Rico marked by hurricane and marred by insufficient relief efforts.
The work took us from a farm nestled in the peaks of the Cordillera Central mountain range in Adjuntas to a health clinic under reconstruction on the island municipality of Culebra off the easternmost coast of the country. main island and finally to a community arts center in the basement. wealthy neighborhood of La Perla in San Juan.
Horror stories from survivors showed the extent of the disaster
The stories collected in this project shed light on the enormous obstacles to the survival of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. In the midst of the hurricane, Emmanuel Rodríguez desperately tried to drive his pregnant wife to hospital, only to be forced to return home when they discovered that the road in front of them had collapsed under a mudslide.
From a neighbor’s house, Carlos Bonilla Rodríguez watched the hurricane tear off the roof of his house and throw it into the wind, his belongings following close behind.
Other narrators have said that they desperately held the doors shut against the wind and barricaded the windows as best they could, while frantically wiping off the water that relentlessly poured into their homes. Still others described being forced to seek refuge in hastily organized government shelters, where the sick cried all night and where people with disabilities were on their own.
Equally dire was the post-hurricane period
The aftermath of María was as dire as the actual storm, and the stories of survivors drew attention to the precariousness of surviving in the weeks, months and years after the hurricane.
Neysha Irizarry Ortiz’s premature son was born in a makeshift clinic with no electricity three weeks after the hurricane. Luis G. Flores López watched his father grow sicker and sicker as he desperately prayed for the reopening of the dialysis clinic so that he could receive life-saving treatment. A month passed before a government or non-profit agency came to check on Windy Díaz Díaz, leaving her trapped in her own home with debris blocking her wheelchair ramp.
This natural hurricane disaster was compounded by years of repeated government failures. A perpetually underfunded electricity service could not recover from the damage sustained during the hurricane. FEMA did not succeed of its stated goals – instead of appropriating gasoline and moving it from local stations to sites it deemed essential, leaving nothing for private cars or generators.
FEMA also redirected food shipments that failed to reach many rural communities or urban neighborhoods and failed to provide shelter to those who had lost their homes. The organization and delivery of relief was so chaotic that the stocks of potable water and goods warehouses are yet to be discovered.
Puerto Rico’s colonial history forms the backdrop for the hurricane disaster
Puerto Rico’s complex colonial roots also shaped the hurricane’s aftermath and delayed recovery. In the 21st century, the US Congress allowed laws that were enacted to stimulate the economy to expire. In 2016, the PROMESA Act established an external financial management and oversight board to oversee all aspects of the governance of Puerto Rico related to finance.
Harmful austerity measures promulgated by this council created an ongoing humanitarian crisis, accelerated mass migration from Puerto Rico to the continental United States, and jeopardized the archipelago’s medical care, education and infrastructure. These actions are just one step in the process of multigenerational colonization that has positioned the people of Puerto Rico as second class citizens who cannot vote for the president, do not have a voting representative in Congress, and do not receive equal funding for social protection programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, HUD and SNAP / NAP, among others.
The precariousness continues to this day. In December 2019, a earthquake swarm—More than 9,000 earthquakes to date — have started off the southwest coast of the main island, forcing thousands to flee their homes, and in 2020 the governor declared state of emergency due to drought and water shortages.
In a single example of “catastrophe capitalism”, Puerto Rico’s power grid was recently privatized and, as of June 1, 2021, is managed by Luma energy, an American and Canadian company. Since the takeover, Luma has laid off scores of line workers to cut expenses, set up English-only customer service, suffered a cyberattack that crashed the customer service portal and damaged Costa Sur power plant. by earthquakes, failed, causing a huge network. failure. Combined problems have led Luma to institute continuous blackouts during the height of the hurricane season, affecting hospitals and medical care across the archipelago.
These problems with the electricity grid add a layer of complication to surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, as many people do not have a stable home in which to take shelter, running water necessary for washing their hands or the electricity needed to power a house. .
Speaking of his underserved neighborhood, La Perla, in San Juan, Lorel Cubano Santiago, whose story is featured in Mi Maria– believes that “the lack of help here is systemic – it is intentional”. Expressing her concerns about gentrification, she said: “Our people have been systematically mistreated their entire lives. No one is going to help our community because La Perla is coveted. She added, “If no help comes here, people are hoping it will be abandoned, so they can just buy it.”
Mutual assistance in the absence of government assistance
Despite widespread government failures around Hurricane María, we have repeatedly seen communities rise up to take care of each other. Grassroots organizations and mutual aid efforts brought people together to cook community meals, care for children and the elderly, rebuild shelters, provide first aid and pool funds.
Cubano Santiago and his neighbors took it upon themselves to feed, clean up and organize La Perla after the hurricane. Neighbors sharing with each other – and with strangers – became friends through acts of kindness.
When reading individual first-person accounts in Mi Maria, several links between survivor stories emerge, fostering a better understanding of the continued failures of government services across the archipelago and of the strength of those affected.
The Wider Meaning of Survivor Stories
Puerto Rico is at the forefront of the global climate emergency, as the latest IPCC report and recent storms such as Hurricane Ida are intensifying. The ways in which these oral histories demonstrate community responses to disasters are applicable to other places in the world that are also affected by climate change.
These stories of government neglect and second-class citizenship in the face of a climate catastrophe remind us of the systems of marginalization, colonial practice and institutionalized racism that many communities on the front lines of the climate emergency face and will face. The book’s title, Mi Maria, emphasizes the need to reappropriate the narrative of Hurricane María and Puerto Rico from the government or the media to the people who experienced this disaster. Who tells the story matters.
The Mi Maria The collection is a start and not an end, as there are countless more stories to tell. Four years after Hurricane María, it is high time to listen.
Ricia Anne Chansky Sancinito
is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, where she directs the Oral History Laboratory. It focuses on Puerto Rico, disasters, climate and the environment. Recent publications include Mi María: Surviving the Storm, Voices from Puerto Rico (Haymarket 2021) and America Untied: Unraveling National Identity in the Twenty-first Century (Wisconsin 2022). She has won numerous awards for her climate justice project, “Mi María: Puerto Rico after the Hurricane”.