How Hurricane Maria Fueled Puerto Rico’s Resistance

August 2, 2019
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by Karen Pinchin Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism Fellowship

Puerto Rican artists Ricky Martin, Residente and Bad Bunny take part in a demonstration demanding Governor Ricardo Rossello's resignation in San Juan. (Photo by Eric Rojas/AFP)

This story has been updated.

Days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, 23-year-old college student Anais Delilah Roque was responsible for an emergency shelter on the island’s rural western coast. For three weeks, Roque watched over about 80 people whose homes had been destroyed in the storm. Her charges — including a tiny infant and elderly people requiring medication — packed into nine classrooms of a high school. Until the shelter closed, Roque slept five hours a night on a cot in the principal’s office.

Roque was accustomed to working with struggling Puerto Ricans. Before her dramatic post-storm promotion, she had helped unemployed and low-income aid recipients write resumes and find outfits for job interviews. But nothing prepared her for the destruction — splintered homes and tangles of downed power lines — that Maria’s 150 mile-per-hour winds left behind. “Seeing the institutional lack of planning and the dynamics in terms of providing shelter to those people, that was a very shocking experience,” Roque said.

Last month, Puerto Ricans were roiled by the release of nearly 900 pages of uncouth, sexist and homophobic private chat transcripts between the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, and his friends and political allies. Among the chats’ many targets were Puerto Ricans who died during the storm, a blow to Roque and others who witnessed the suffering firsthand. (Responding to a question about the government’s budget for forensic pathologists, Rosselló’s former chief fiscal officer asked, “Don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?”)

Two weeks ago, with Maria’s second anniversary approaching, Roque joined thousands of protestors on the streets of San Juan. They sang, banged pots and shouted for Rosselló’s resignation. At the demonstration, her phone battery running low, Roque snapped a blurry picture of the rapper Residente, the moniker of Calle 13’s René Pérez Joglar, standing on a van surrounded by flags. Before flying back to the island earlier that day, he and two prominent Puerto Rican artists co-wrote and recorded “Afilando Los Cuchillos,” or “Sharpening the Knives.” The track, which had 2.5 million views on YouTube within a day of its release, aimed directly at Rosselló: “Your apologies are drowned with rain water/In houses that still don’t have a roof,” Residente spits halfway through the song.

Rosselló issued a series of apologies but refused to step down in the immediate aftermath of the leak. But a week later, facing impeachment and thousands of unexpectedly persistent protestors, he announced his resignation. He is expected to step down on Friday.

The outrage on Puerto Rico’s streets last month is about more than crude communiqués. The complex and rapidly unfolding situation is rooted in the island’s decades-long economic crisis and political mismanagement. But according to many Puerto Rican political observers, scientists and activists, Hurricane Maria — and, by default, climate change — is at the heart of the current resistance.

“Hurricane Maria was like a hammer that hits a hard, ceramic structure that people think can withstand any blow,” said Ramón Bueno, a climate change and development expert who studies the Caribbean. “When it cracks, you can see that any faults that were there were just magnified by the combination of pre-existing conditions and the harshness of the blow.”

Still, Bueno said that it wouldn’t have taken a storm as strong as Maria to reveal Puerto Rico’s deep-seated struggles. Nearly half of the population lives in poverty, which is twice the rate of Mississippi, the U.S. state with the highest poverty rate. That makes it particularly vulnerable to disasters, and deeply reliant on external help when storms do hit.

One month after the hurricane, three million people, or about 80 percent of the population, didn’t have electricity. One million didn’t have running water. Hospitals relied on generators for limited, unreliable power. Only one-tenth of the island’s highways were passable. The roofs of 60,000 homes were ripped off or damaged.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency declared the island a disaster zone the same day Hurricane Maria made landfall, yet help came late and was inadequate when it arrived. FEMA awarded one Atlanta company a $156 million contract to distribute 30 million meals; it later cancelled the contract after the company had only provided 50,000 meals by the time it was supposed to have delivered more than 18.5 million. Another contractor, Master Group, was later put under federal investigation for fraud after it botched a $30 million contract to deliver hundreds of thousands of tarps that never arrived.

Rosselló’s chat transcripts contained references to FEMA — “now we have someone to blame,” read one text message.

Puerto Ricans were forced to take matters into their own hands. While reporting last year’s FRONTLINE and NPR investigation Blackout in Puerto Rico, reporter Laura Sullivan met Oscar Carrion, a corner-store owner and father of three who taught himself how to string electrical wire. He and an untrained, improvised crew restored power to thousands of homes without support from either the country’s government or FEMA. “We’re used to living in a state of need, so we have to do it for ourselves,” he told FRONTLINE. “If we don’t, nobody will do it for us.”

As the community came together in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma (which hit weeks before the second storm), a bond solidified. Sergio Marxuach, the policy director at Puerto Rico’s Center for a New Economy, said that the community solidarity formed when Puerto Ricans had to fend for themselves can be directly linked to the recent protests.

“People have had all this anger bottled up since the storm, from the slow response, both from the Puerto Rican government and FEMA,” Marxuach said. “The number of people dead, the number of people who were without power for eight, nine months.”

So the leaked chats, were only the last straw, according to Marxuach. During the protests, many marchers painted the number of people who died after the storm on their faces.

The relationship between resistance and climate change — at the heart of the discussion around increasingly intense tropical storms — is something geophysicist Brad Werner, at the University of California, San Diego, thinks about a lot. Resistance, he said, is increasingly occurring in social movements like Puerto Rico’s, which has been noted by other researchers and academics. “Some may use the word ‘resilience’ to describe what happened in Puerto Rico after the impact of Hurricane Maria, I call it ‘resistance,’” wrote one doctor a month after the storm.

Werner, who is quick to mention that he’s never worked on the island, believes Puerto Rico’s protests likely wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Hurricane Maria, which served as a powder keg for the current public upheaval. “Changes that are happening with the earth are causing a huge amount of suffering, which is totally concentrated on the most marginalized people,” he said. “But it’s also opening up these spaces: spaces for logistical opportunism, for different kinds of imaginations on what the future might look like.”

For young Puerto Ricans like Roque, that intersection between a shifting planet and social change extends beyond protests.

Roque became one of the estimated 200,000 people who fled the island after the storm, but she wasn’t abandoning Puerto Rico. The suffering she witnessed during Hurricane Maria inspired her new calling: she started a doctorate in environmental sciences at Arizona State University, focusing on water security in Puerto Rico. Now back home for research, she spends her days on the road, asking survivors of Hurricane Maria where they found or got water before, during and immediately after the storm. She also asks them where they get it now, and who provides it.

Just this week, a video of tens of thousands of unopened bottled waters — which had been destined for Puerto Rico after Maria — went viral on social media after being reported by the AFP. They were at or near expiration dates.

“As emergency managers, we are always looking to improve processes that enable a rapid response, where federal support can meet state and local capability gaps in the most efficient ways possible,” FEMA spokesperson Abigail Dennis wrote in an emailed statement. In the future, she says, the agency will increase emergency supplies available on the island, require vendors to keep a regular rotation of supplies and purchase “boxed and canned water with up to a 10-year shelf life.”

For an island that has long suffered the insults of colonialism, corruption and mismanagement, Marxuach said, it is meaningful that the chat transcripts were more of the same, yet different — they were one insult too far. However, he added, it remains to be seen whether the protests will continue and bring other long-term changes to the island.

“It’s hard to know exactly how this is going to end,” Marxuach said. “I do think a small group is going to keep protesting against government abuses and delays in the reconstruction process. Another group will likely just go home.”

For Roque, who recently visited a town that went without clean water for months, anything other than fundamental change within the government is unacceptable. As she drives from town to town, she interviews Puerto Ricans whose friends and family members got sick or died from illnesses and infections caused or exacerbated by lack of access to clean water. “We see those water bottles that were misused, when people in our town needed water,” she said. “It brings back so many bad memories.” People often breaking into tears in front of her, she said, out of frustration, sadness and anger.

Although Roque and many of her former classmates and friends have left the island, many plan to return, she said, armed with research and resources to fight climate change and help build their communities. “[Rosselló’s] messages were wrong. Corruption is dividing our families,” she said. “We’re tired of what’s going on, and we need a change.”

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