Hurricane Maria devastated most of the infrastructure of the island of Puerto Rico, leaving residents scrambling for food, water, gasoline and other necessities. Because communication lines were destroyed, information is slowly trickling out from the U.S. island territory, and the news is not good.
Maura Toro-Morn is a Puerto Rico native and sociology professor at Illinois State University. Daynali Flores-Rodriguez, a professor of Hispanic studies at Illinois Wesleyan University, was also born on the island. Both have been in touch with relatives in recent days.
Both say the U.S. government response to the crisis so far has been far from adequate.
“The lack of empathy coming from the highest levels of political office in this country, namely our president, is really an insult,” Toro-Morn said.
Soon after the extent of the devastation became known, the president described Puerto Rico as one island in a “very big ocean” and praised U.S. relief efforts which had barely begun. As reports of the hurricane’s destruction trickled out, the president spent time over the weekend engaged in an exchange with professional football over the national anthem, which dominated the headlines.
Toro-Morn said many Americans on the U.S. mainland are unaware that Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents are U.S. citizens too.
"This is really a teachable moment for Americans to understand the historical legacy of U.S. involvement in the Caribbean. They need to understand Puerto Rico is part of the United States and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens," she said.
For some four days after the hurricane struck, Toro-Morn and others with family on the island said they were unable to get through messages.
“We were completely incommunicado,” Toro-Morn said.
Two days ago, Moro-Torn said she finally heard from her brother, a municipal police officer from the west side of the island, one of the hardest hit areas. Her brother was able to make the cell phone call from San Juan, the country’s capital, where he had traveled to seek help for the people of his western town, Cabo Rojo, she said.
“He conveyed to me in the most heartfelt language the devastation he had seen."
All of the nearby rivers had overflowed. “Roads were impossible because of trees and electricity poles and cables down. No water. No electricity. Complete darkness. His voice was trembling when he was speaking to me on the phone,” Toro-Morn added.
Puerto Rico had been cleaning up from damage it endured during Hurricane Irma at the beginning of September when Hurricane Maria ripped through the island last week, wreaking even more destruction.
Flores-Rodriguez said she had heard from her mother and sister, who lives in a concrete house, but some relatives are still unaccounted for. Some live in Arecibo, where the eye of the storm passed before leaving the island.
“I received a call from one cousin, he is desperate. His wife is pregnant about to give birth, and they are scared. There is no running water. They have to economize gas as much as they can because his wife can go into labor at any moment,” Flores-Rodriguez said.
She said she and other Puerto Rican natives living on the mainland have been frustrated by not being able to send care packages to the island.
“The postal service is very constrained and very limited. Not all of the towns have access to roads. Some towns can only be accessed through helicopters and there is no airport working now,” she added.
Flores-Rodriguez said U.S. government aid has been slow to arrive.
“My husband is in the National Guard. He was deployed for (Hurricane) Irma even before it crossed Florida. He just got called to be deployed today (to Puerto Rico),” a week after the storm struck.
Toro-Morn said the first order of business needs to be the repair and reconstruction of roads in remote parts of the island.
“For that you need machinery and people with expertise to remove the trees and then the first responders can come and address” reconstruction efforts," she said.
Flores-Rodriguez called on the U.S. government to allow foreign ships to bring aid to Puerto Rico. Congress relaxed the rules to allow foreign ships to port in Texas and Florida to aid hurricane victims in those states. (The Trump administration announced Thursday that it has temporarily waived the U.S. shipping restriction.)
Flores-Rodriguez, who coordinates IWU’s Latin American studies program, said many of her students are contacting members of Congress to seek additional aid for Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico did not recover as quickly from the economic crisis of 2008 as the mainland. The hurricane struck as the island struggled to find solutions to a severe debt crisis.
“The one thing that we can do is raise awareness of the situation,” Toro-Morn said.
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