The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was a remarkably busy one.
With Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria all hitting the United States within a short amount of time, there was a lot to keep up with and a lot of people in need. The areas most affected were Houston, the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico, but in this tale of three hurricanes, Puerto Rico has come out as the biggest loser. It is worth taking a look to consider why.
A large part of why Puerto Rico has suffered so much damage is because it was hit by not one but two hurricanes last year. Hurricane Irma hit the island on September 6, resulting in 3 fatalities and significant damage. But as Irma relief efforts were underway, Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, directly and indirectly causing an estimated of 499 deaths (and this is likely a very low estimate).
Being hit by two Category 5 storms in a span of just two weeks is enough to deal with on its own, but couple that with an extremely outdated power grid and you’ve got a crisis on your hands. Without reliable power sources or cell towers, the recovery slowed down due to a lack of consistent communication. Even today, about 40 percent of the island is still without power.
In all, the cost of the damage amounted to an estimated $95 billion. We can usually count on large donations to help with disasters like this, but Puerto Rico was an unfortunate victim of bad timing.
In late August, Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area, inflicting well over $100 billion in damages. Charities, corporations, celebrities and professional sports teams from across the country donated generously to relief efforts for the nation’s fourth-largest city.
Weeks later, after Hurricane Irma passed through Puerto Rico, it traveled north for a head-on collision with the Florida Keys. This was another devastating hit, with the economic losses totaling above $50 billion. Again, donations poured in from all over the country as organizations tried to help repair the damages.
So by the time Maria hit Puerto Rico, a lot of disaster funds were exhausted. Many of the people who would ordinarily donate towards this type of effort had already done so weeks earlier. This is not to diminish the fact that there are several charities that have helped Puerto Ricans tremendously, but the effect was undeniably lessened by the sequence of events.
With the private sector unable to contribute enough to the hurricane relief, the federal government needed to step in and increase its aid to accommodate. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
The government was also stretched financially by the previous two hurricanes, with the president having already allocated billions in extra funding to deal with them. This made them tentative to spend heavily on the disaster struck island, a move which did not go unnoticed.
Oxfam, a large and highly-regarded international charity organization, issued a statement in October severely criticizing the U.S. government, saying it “failed to address the most urgent needs” in Puerto Rico. Oxfam later decided to intervene and contribute to the relief effort, something it seldom does in wealthy, developed nations like the U.S.
So the executive branch’s response proved to be underwhelming, and without proper representation in Congress, the island’s issues were infrequently discussed amongst legislators.
As an unincorporated U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but they have no senators and one non-voting representative in the House. This is despite having a population of 3.3 million, which is larger than 21 states. (For perspective, Iowa’s 3.1 million people get two senators and four representatives.) The island also does not get to vote in presidential general elections.
This is all significant because from a federal perspective, there are zero votes directly at stake when it comes to Puerto Rico. The elected officials deciding much of the island’s fate can’t be held accountable by the people that live on it, thus robbing them of a fundamental feature of democracy.
But I think a more dangerous reason why the troubles of Puerto Rico have gone under the radar of not just politicians, but everyone else, is that we do not view citizens of poorer areas fairly.
Most of the time, when we hear about places like Puerto Rico in the news, it is because something has gone wrong, like a natural disaster. Because we rarely hear good news out of these areas, we begin to associate the people who live there with catastrophes.
We then may start to think that Puerto Ricans are used to these things. We may think that it is nothing new to them, so they do not really mind such horrid conditions. But, in reality, they are people who do not want to live in hurricane-ravaged houses. They are human beings with expectations of good lives, stable homes and a sense of security. They are every bit as human as the hurricane victims in Houston or the Keys, and they absolutely deserve the same respect.
So we cannot hold back on giving aid to the people of Puerto Rico, because they want to get their lives back to normal just as much as we would.
Evan Newell is a junior in chemical engineering and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Columns of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.