Even though people knew hurricane Maria would hit their island on September 20, nobody expected an intensity such as the one showed by the Category 4 hurricane. With all its 150 mph winds, the phenomenon landed directly on Puerto Rico. The impact was stunning, bisecting the whole island and drenching it in rain. However, the true catastrophe was just beginning.
Puerto Rico Hurricane Maria – The Context
Even before the hurricane struck the island, Puerto Rico wasn’t doing that well. Their national debt reached more than $70 billion. Being unable to declare bankruptcy, the country had to close more than 200 schools. Only in 2016, 100,000 citizens moved to mainland U.S. in search of a better life. Ever since 2006, the country has been going through a continuous economic recession.
All the signs showed the Puerto Rico was unable to meet its citizens’ needs before the hurricane. There was a state of generalized corruption, an increased emigration process, as well as an expanding poverty and inequality. The private sector had become more of a parasite for the state. A crisis moment happened back in 2009 when over 30,000 employees were fired within a week. In 2014, the government froze any collective bargaining for the public sector. Moreover, they stopped hiring new employees.
Besides the economic state, hurricane Irma, a Category 4 phenomenon, threatened to hit Puerto Rico in mid-September. Luckily, it didn’t hit directly, but soon after, there was hurricane Maria.
Just after Maria hit, there was a complete electrical blackout that lasted for days. A major issue was the fact that people didn’t have access to any clean and drinkable water. Hospitals, supermarkets, and gas stations didn’t have the necessary diesel to keep the electrical generators running, which meant most people didn’t have access to food or gas. But only after a week did the local government realize another major problem: because of the austerity they instituted in the previous years, they were understaffed.
Luckily, donations started to appear from all over the world:
- The Red Cross raised $350 million in donations for hurricane Harvey, $45 million for Irma, and $9 million for Maria;
- Catholic charities assigned $1.2 million to the areas affected in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands;
- S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation declared that corporations donated $32.4 million for Maria, as opposed to $270.8 million for Harvey and Irma.
As you can see, there is a big difference when it comes to the donations for hurricanes Harvey and Irma and those for Maria. But why is there such a big difference? Some say that people had already donated and invested themselves emotionally in the first two hurricanes. Moreover, Maria received much fewer media coverage than them, which can also be another reason for the lack of funds. The Hurricanes were quickly followed by the Las Vegas mass killings, which also attracted people’s attention.
What Is FEMA Doing?
After the Puerto Rico hurricane Maria took place, a new company in Florida won over $30 million in contracts from the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). The goal of the contracts was to offer emergency tarps, as well as plastic sheeting for repairing the buildings on the island. The company, called Bronze Star LLC, failed to deliver the supplies people needed urgently. Months later, there is still a huge need on the island for such materials.
In the end, FEMA terminated the contracts and paid no money. This month, they restarted the process of finding more tarps to provide the island. However, the process is a lengthy and difficult one. Meanwhile, thousands of people are still homeless. Many are complaining that the federal government isn’t doing its best to install the tarps.
A Continuous Disaster
Months after the tragic event, things don’t seem to improve for the country. Most of the farmers in Puerto Rico lost a big part of their livelihood because of the hurricanes. Carlos Alberto Flores Ortega, who is the secretary of the Department of Agriculture in Puerto Rico, said that 80% of the crop value was simply wiped out. In his view, it could take from 10 to 12 months to return to the initial production levels.
According to Ortega, there’s also another problem for farmers all throughout the country. Many of them have no access to any type of communications, which means most of them don’t know about the programs and benefits they can access. From what he says, farmers can receive financial assistance both from his department and the American one.
The entire agricultural industry was wrecked, being down $245 million in products and $1.8 billion in infrastructure. Around 2.2 million chickens were killed, together with 4,200 cows being affected. The USDA sent $12 million to dairy farmers in October, money that are enough to feed the animals for a month.
The Superfund Issue
Besides all the economic problems, there is also a high risk of contamination following Puerto Rico hurricane Maria. The Department of Health and Public Services talked about the danger represented by super fund sites. These are lands that were contaminated by hazardous waste, being a risk for the environment, as well as human health. Puerto Rico is home to one of the worst such sites. Vieques, which is an outlying island, has been used by the U.S. for 60 years as a place for extensive bomb testing.
Now, the hurricane contaminated 2/3 of the island, which caused 9,000 residents to get cancer. Even today, lots of unexploded bombs, projectiles, and bullets are on the Vieques. There is also the danger of contamination from the coal industry. One example is the coal ash that has been stockpiled in the south of the country. When the rain will liquefy the ash stored there, the entire area will be affected by the high levels of mercury, arsenic, and chromium.
To sum it all up, Puerto Rico hurricane Maria has been a complete disaster. Even though it didn’t get as much media coverage as the other hurricanes, the effects over the country are still devastating. Not everybody has access to electricity, food, or clean, drinkable water. From what it seems, the authorities are lagging in providing the materials needed to rebuild the houses. We have to wait and see how Puerto Rico will manage to reconstruct their country little by little.
Featured image source: Eliud Echevarria @ Petapixel