“A country is its people. You won’t see Mexico at its prettiest, but you will see it at its best.” Those were the words my boss, who is Mexican, shared with me before I left for Mexico City to report on the aftermath of the earthquake of Sept. 19.
I have reflected on that sentiment constantly ever since, and not only because it perfectly describes the resiliency in the face of tragedy that I witnessed in Mexico. “A country is its people” has become a mantra I repeat to console myself for the heartbreak I am feeling for my own homeland, Puerto Rico.
Like Mexico, Puerto Rico suffered a double dose of disaster this month. Where Mexico endured its two deadliest earthquakes since 1985; Puerto Rico has been hit by two of its most damaging hurricanes in nearly a century.
'Island of Enchantment'
As the magnitude of the evolving catastrophe engulfing Puerto Rico comes into horrifying focus, contemplating the multi-dimensional challenges the 'Island of Enchantment' (Isla del Encanto) is facing is a quick way to work oneself into despair. In addition to the scarcity of potable water, it is the simple lack of electricity that has been the most defining of Puerto Rico’s troubles.
Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rosselló, who at just 38 years old and after only 9 months in office is facing the country's greatest challenge in living memory, reported that large swaths of Puerto Rico’s fragile electrical grid are decimated beyond repair and must be wholly rebuilt. Rosselló projected that most of the island could be without power for up to six months.
I lived in Puerto Rico from the age of four until 15: on Amapola St in the town of Trujillo Alto, just south of San Juan. The island is the setting of all my fondest childhood memories. Many of my family still live there and I visit as often as I can.
There is a saying in Puerto Rico: “ Donde comen dos, comen tres.” In essence, it means “there is always room for one more at the table.” This proverb will be put to the test like never before as the expected exodus to the U.S. mainland materializes. My family in Miami is prepared to host as many as half a dozen family members for the duration of the recovery. Just about every Puerto Rican that I know in the U.S. is prepared to do the same. And many Puerto Ricans who leave will never go back. Puerto Rico has already lost an astonishing 8.5 per cent of its population since the last census in 2010.
Puerto Rico is home to more American citizens than 21 U.S. states. Nevertheless, a U.S. president who no Puerto Rican on the island is permitted to vote for, but all Puerto Ricans are constitutionally represented by, has trained his attention elsewhere.
The presidential pulpit is being used to amplify drama surrounding the NFL at the expense of directing attention to a life and death struggle taking place in Puerto Rico, a struggle that is decidedly not a game.
Calamities like the one 3.4 million Puerto Ricans are facing should bring clarity of purpose. Instead Trump is using his position to pit Americans against each other at a moment that calls for uniting them in common cause to help their own. The president’s inattention might have already cost Puerto Rican lives.
There is a reason we don’t see octogenarians as cast members on Survivor. Life in the unforgiving heat of a tropical island is not a matter of discomfort, it’s a question of danger. For the elderly electricity is not a luxury, it’s a lifeline. Almost as many people died in a single Miami nursing home with no power from lack of air-conditioning than died from rain, storm surge, or wind in all of Florida during Hurricane Irma.
And the dark brings another danger: looting.
My cousin Mari Frances Bonnet, who grew up on the same street as me, has been my main contact and liaison with the rest of my family on the island. She notes that the moon has waned, providing little light at night to discourage looters. “Thieves know people are keeping cash at home. They are stealing generators, electronics, even food. Fights are breaking out over gas. People are going crazy and it’s getting worse,” she told me.
Mother Nature is neither benevolent nor cruel, just indifferently all-powerful. The hurricane season lasts until Nov. 30, and there is no guarantee that another storm won’t threaten the Caribbean. Puerto Ricans are acutely aware of this. Mari is not only my contact on the island, but the de facto news source of our entire family there, dutifully monitoring the weather in the Atlantic. And rain is on the forecast in the next few days, literally dampening hopes of recovery.
Like too much of the recovery effort, Mari’s car has been stuck since the storm hit. The vehicle now serves exclusively as a grossly inefficient phone charger.
Charging phones ....
You know that anxious feeling as your phone battery approaches zero? Multiply that a thousand-fold and one begins to understand how she feels as she watches the needle on the gas gauge slowly drop to empty.
I went to the Florida Keys two days after the archipelago took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. One thing I saw there that has yet to materialize in Puerto Rico is an overwhelming military response. Univision’s reporters have crisscrossed the island, and our reporters on the ground echo what my cousin tells me: the U.S. presence is nowhere to be seen.
On Univision’s evening news my colleague Felix de Bedout reported from San Juan airport, noting there was a large U.S. military Hercules transport plane on the runway. Only one, he commented incredulously.
Touring the damage in the Keys I was reminded by the constant stream of camo trucks bearing food and water that the measure of an army is taken not just in its ability to destroy its enemies, but also in its capacity to help its people. And that capacity for aid is vital, because conditions for many Boricuas are potentially lethal.
Puerto Rico’s exodus this decade has left the island’s remaining population disproportionately constituted by the vulnerable. 18.4 per cent are over 65, the highest in the nation. 12 per cent are disabled, highest in the nation. Nearly 45 per cent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty, twice the rate of MIssissippi, the poorest mainland state.
The humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes is of a nature and on a scale American citizens have rarely, if ever, faced. Comparisons between Trump’s response to Maria and George W. Bush’s response to Katrina are unavoidable. Trump even had his own “heckuva job Brownie” moment on Tuesday, saying his handling of the emergency gets “really good marks.”
Considering a central driver of anger over Katrina was that the government reacted slowly because New Orleans population is predominantly black, it is hard not to wonder if history is repeating itself in that regard.
That perception was not helped this past week as Trump attacked black athletes while ignoring Hispanic citizens in desperate need. The roll-out of aid to Puerto Rico feels like an illustration of how the U.S. government’s disaster-response machinery operates without a president at the helm.
Frustration with the government’s response understandably runs deep. When Trump visits Puerto Rico next Tuesday, he should not expect a warm welcome, merely a transactional one.
Like many Puerto Ricans, I fear the island that raised me will never be the same. In a video that has gone viral on Puerto Rican’s social media, rapper Bad Bunny concludes a defiant verse about Puerto Rican resiliency hopefully, saying “the Puerto Rico of today is not that of yesterday, but nor will it be that of tomorrow.”
Boricuas say we have a “mancha de plátano,” meaning our island leaves an imprint on us that, unlike our infrastructure, cannot be washed away. I have faith in my people. But the government’s response, or lack thereof, leaves me with a creeping doubt that the next generation of Puerto Ricans will be able to enjoy the same beautiful upbringing on a happy green island -- that I did.