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Politicians and Clarkies Alike Respond to Hurricane Maria

Amanda Quiñones

Amanda Quiñones

Brett Iarrobino, Contributing Writer

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As the abnormally active 2017 Atlantic hurricane season conjures its fourth storm, citizens of Puerto Rico are calling out for action as they grapple against the devastation of their most destructive hurricane since 1928. After it made landfall on Sept. 20, 34 of the 78 deaths attributed to Hurricane Maria came from Puerto Rico, and the $98 billion loss caused by the storm can be primarily traced back to the island as well. The fact that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens makes it all the more questionable and disconcerting when one examines the minimal support and attention the federal government has given the exacerbated island.

Puerto Rico’s situation is especially dire due to the extreme poverty that racks their government, which can be traced back to a mid-20th century tax break under Section 936 of the Tax Code. This attracted American companies to set up business on the island, who then departed from the country and took thousands of jobs with them after the tax breaks were removed by Congress in the 2000s. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 that imposed significant tariffs on foreign imports is another critical attribute to the dire fiscal predicament Puerto Rico finds itself in today, forcing Puerto Ricans to pay high prices for the food they primarily receive from overseas trade. As economic growth crept to a standstill, islanders abandoned their homes for the U.S. mainland, and as the tax base decreased, the government took on an enormous debt to repay their bills and infrastructure.

 

By June 2015, the governor of Puerto Rico announced their $72 billion could not be repaid, following a year of uncertainty as to whether the country would meet its financial obligations. Since this declaration, there has been virtually no progress in repairing their economic afflictions, and two years later, Puerto Rico essentially declared bankruptcy – budgets for roads, schools, and medical institutions were greatly diminished. The island’s economic ruin puts it in no position to singlehandedly rescue themselves from a deadly and calamitous event such as Hurricane Maria. The neighborhoods of La Perla, Cataño, and Jana Matos were almost entirely destroyed, storm surges and flash floods trapped the town of Toa Baja, and the island’s power grid was expunged, leaving all 3.4 million residents without electricity. This sort of chaos and annihilation has left the government in a great deal of dependency on financial and disaster relief aid from the federal level — aid that has been largely absent for the majority of the crisis.

The immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria saw little action from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; the Merchant Marine Act was not suspended until Sept. 28 (nearly two weeks after the storm’s arrival), while the act was immediately waived in response to Hurricane Irma and Harvey impacting Texas and Florida. Not until Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rossello, publicly pleaded for the bill to be suspended and a general cry for aid came from San Juan’s Mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, did the DHS take action. As critics took aim at the questionable amount of concern expressed by the Trump Administration for Puerto Rico, National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel defended the government’s course of action. He argued that Puerto Rico’s status as an island rather than a member of the mainland hampered relief efforts. Despite these deflections, harsh objections to the handling of the Hurricane Maria crisis persisted – Trump himself was forced to state he does care about Puerto Rico.

These insistences were again questioned when the President made a visit to the country this past week, and made a comparison between Hurricane Maria and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. This comparison was seen as an invalidation of the hardship Puerto Rico has endured.

“…If you look at a real tragedy like Katrina, and you look at the…hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with really a storm that was just totally overbearing, nobody has seen anything like this…What is your death count as of this morning, 17?” asked the President at a government meeting in San Juan. Many saw this remark as a reflection of an overall condescending and apathetic opinion toward the serious and dire struggle Puerto Ricans are facing. Trump later implied in a statement to Puerto Rican residents that their need for aid and relief was “throw[ing] [the] budget a little out of whack,” further suggesting a minimal concern towards taking the necessary steps to help the U.S. territory.

While the public and the media debate whether Trump and his administration are doing all that they can in their action and rhetoric to better the situation, the students and faculty of Clark University are making it clear there is no room for ignorance and indifference when it comes to the urgent crisis Puerto Ricans are facing.

“Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and the government’s response to Puerto Rico when compared with the response to places like Florida and Texas is very telling of what kind of Americans the government wants to prioritize,” said Kaiomi Inniss (‘19).

During his Friday morning First-Year Intensive class, theater professor Raymond Munro denounced the media’s coverage of the NFL national anthem controversy when ongoing crises like Hurricane Maria persist: “[Puerto Ricans] are more part of our country than an anthem, or a flag.”

For some students, such as Amanda Quiñones (‘20), this is more than just a news story; she calls Puerto Rico home, and said she believes the governments of both her country and the United States need to pay attention to more than just the metro areas of the island.

“The countryside of Puerto Rico has been neglected entirely…more attention and coverage needs to be directed to the entire island, not to just where the money has gone,” said Quiñones. “It needs to happen on the national level, but also on the campus level, because there needs to be more attention and care given to students affected by this crisis; and there’s a lot of us who are.”

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Politicians and Clarkies Alike Respond to Hurricane Maria