September 17th, 2017. I am on a flight, Puerto Rico to Chicago. Three days later, Hurricane Maria devastated the islands and cut me off from my entire family.
September 17th, 2022. I sit in my Chicago apartment reading my family’s messages as they successively lose power and water. Hurricane Fiona slowly, too slowly, envelops the islands.
Today, five years after Hurricane Maria, I find myself wondering why we are here again. Hurricane Fiona reminds me that five years ago we failed.
Like many of those unsure of our futures, I initially left home for grad school. Back then in 2017, I didn’t have any family stateside so, once the hurricane hit, I was frozen. Only a few in my family had signal for those first few days. I couldn’t call, no service, no flights. I depended on secondhand word of mouth.
“Have you heard from Papi?”
“He still hasn’t answered his phone. But Titi says she saw him at Abuela’s house three days ago.”
And yet, from far away, I may have had a better view of the carnage and destruction than my family did. I had plenty of power and a strong enough internet connection to see the deluge of pictures and videos that moved so many of us to action. Maybe you still remember.
I looked for efforts with the Puerto Rican communities in my area and, like many communities around the states and the world, we got to work. We mobilized aid and got the world to stop and stare. For the first time, the country as a whole had stopped to see Puerto Rico. There was around the clock news coverage and fundraising efforts from the biggest names. As he is prone to do, Lin-Manuel Miranda moved us with his music. It was inspiring.
And then it stopped. After the notorious paper towel incident, after some perfunctory budgetary allotments, after enough blue tarps in place of roofs, after things could just barely appear normal… the country moved on. Puerto Rico, it was said, was moving past relief into a phase of reconstruction.
A few days ago, Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 hurricane, has nonetheless left the islands in a complete blackout. Thousands have had to leave their flooded homes. Can we put ourselves in the shoes of those who lost everything in 2017 and have, once again, lost it all?
What happened to reconstruction? What happened to rebuilding a stronger Puerto Rico? We did. More specifically, our representatives in the United States government happened.
While communities across the states mobilized aid for relief, our representatives in Congress and the White House put up technical obstacles that made requesting and getting aid an unreasonably long, arduous process, thereby hampering the island’s access to reconstruction money. To this day, only a fraction has been made available to Puerto Rico. Think about it: even under the best circumstances, infrastructure projects take months and years. You can imagine how little reconstruction has taken place in just five years.
Further, Congress controls Puerto Rico’s finances via the Oversight Board it imposed on the local government. The Board has so far pushed dramatic budget cuts that have left Puerto Rican institutions underfunded and weak.
But these problems that hindered reconstruction didn’t make the news. There was no public outcry. It is no doubt much harder for Lin-Manuel to write a song about federal bureaucracy and budget cuts. Our government in the States - the federal government - had no push back from the people.
We can see the results now in Hurricane Fiona. A weak energy grid and weak infrastructure have left millions at risk.
Through our government, we in the US made reconstruction money barely trickle down, and we, through our government, weakened their emergency services, colleges, schools, and hospitals.
It’s important that I say our government, now that I live here in Illinois. And it’s important that we acknowledge that it’s not “their” government that did this. In what real way can the Federal government be theirs? Who did they elect?
Which is the point. As long as the Federal government… sorry.
As long as we don’t accept responsibility for the power we have over Puerto Rico, these issues aren’t going to get better. You can’t fix the disregard and neglect that comes from being a colony, from having no political power. No amount of money, fundraising campaigns, or planes full of food can address the underlying inequity. Only decolonization can.
Back during Hurricane Maria, we missed our chance to see the big picture. To see that the disaster was both natural and man-made. We missed our chance to not only help Puerto Rico rebuild, but to give it the power to rebuild itself. Only by allowing the Puerto Rican people to choose their political future, can we give them a real chance to fight the challenges ahead.
Otherwise, we must explain why we see a community on the front lines of climate change disaster and choose to hold them down, forcing them to live under the neglect of our government. If we choose to keep Puerto Rico as a colony, their suffering now and in future disasters will be - in too great of a measure - our fault.
(Edoardo A. Ortiz earned his Masters in Public Policy at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public and works in public policy & Puerto Rico advocacy efforts)