Left in the Dark

Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands still reeling from hurricanes


It has been five months since the waves of tropical hurricanes devastated southern states and U.S. territories in the Caribbean Sea. For weeks, push notifications trafficked the cell phones of millions, each carrying bleak updates of death tolls, desperate supply needs and more storms yet to come.

It has been five months since the notifications have disappeared and the media’s eyes turned away from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But these territories are still without adequate supplies of food, water and steady power, and have been experiencing rolling or total blackouts since the hurricanes hit.

Illustration by Ania Webb

Hurricane Maria, a nearly Category 5 storm, came days after Hurricane Irma swept the same region, leaving dozens dead and missing. The official death count following Hurricane Maria was 64 as of December, but unofficial deaths in the months following amounted to as much as over 1000, Time Magazine and the New York Times reported. According to these sources, the bodies were cremated without inspection and the causes of death were listed as being from “natural causes.”

It was clear at the time that the damage inflicted by the hurricanes was a national emergency, and while disaster relief organizations treated it as such with thousands of pounds of relief supplies making their way to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the White House was slow to start and stingy with support.

Though media coverage has dissipated in recent months as affected areas like the Florida Keys recover in time for tourist season, the needs of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are largely forgotten.

It is ridiculous to see a U.S. state prepping for seasonal tourist profits while U.S. territories are still struggling to rebuild housing and blackouts are still happening throughout the islands.

Illustration by Ania Webb

Perhaps the most hard-hitting blackouts are in hospitals, whose emergency generators cannot support all of the machines needed to routinely maintain patient care. The inconsistent power also affects air conditioning, jeopardizing environments that need to be kept cool and increasing the likelihood of heatstroke in patients already in critical condition. By not addressing these blackouts for five months, the U.S. government is responsible for deaths that could have been prevented if the lives of these people were prioritized.

Months after the hurricane, the fragile power grid is frequented by explosions at power plants — overworked and poorly maintained due to limited resources — leaving sections of Puerto Rico in abrupt darkness. While sources estimate that 84 percent of the island has regained power, it is anyone’s guess as to how reliable the electricity is. This extremely temporary sense of security is unacceptable for tax-paying U.S. territories. When compared to nearby Miami, the sixth-most coveted city for those with net worths of over $30 million, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are seeing a gross mishandling of the human rights to safety and electricity.

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin islands are on U.S. soil — Puerto Rico was claimed by the U. S. in 1898 and the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1917 — yet their people are being treated as second-class citizens in the wake of major traumas.

President Donald Trump did not hold a “situation room” meeting for the hurricanes until eight days after they hit and sent a meager 7,200 military personnel 12 days later. Compare this to federal disaster relief following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, in which President Obama sent 8,000 troops in less than two days and 22,000 within two weeks. To add insult to injury, when President Trump and the first lady arrived for their public display of obligatory condolences, Trump callously threw rolls of paper towels into crowds of painfully displaced people.

On Feb. 8, 141 days after Hurricane Maria hit the coast of Puerto Rico, President Trump signed a measure that would allocate $15.8 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for Puerto Rico’s relief. This offering is insignificant compared to the $94.4 billion Puerto Rican officials requested to rebuild housing and design a steady power grid. Less than a month after the hurricanes hit, the president tweeted that the U.S. can’t keep sending FEMA and disaster relief to Puerto Rico “forever.” Interestingly, the president made no call to remove relief efforts from similarly affected states such as Florida or Texas, both of which he won in the 2016 election.

Since then, indirect deaths continue to build as food, water and electricity are still in high demand and exposure to the elements chips away at people’s livelihoods. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands still need help, and the U.S. government cannot be relied on to provide it.

It is not too late to send help to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Local charities are still accepting donations. Among others, Unidos por Puerto Rico and the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands are both dedicated to rebuilding these areas and providing food and water to those affected.