The People of Puerto Rico Still Need Our Help
As I was growing up in Hollywood, Florida, a city just north of Miami, my family never considered themselves “neighborhood people.” My parents refrained from exchanging anything beyond a cursory hello with neighbors. We did not go to block parties. My brother and I went to school in Davie, an adjacent city. We kept to ourselves, content in our own insular world full of baton competitions, baseball games, Aikido practices – until a hurricane hit.
Major storms slowed us down, forced us to acknowledge and appreciate the people – neighbors, other students we didn’t typically interact with – that we saw every day and yet did not know. As a five-year-old, I watched from the porch as my mother and father helped clear debris from the next-door neighbor’s yard. My sophomore year of high school, Hurricane Katrina and Wilma blew through in quick succession, and what I recall most vividly is the group of neighbors, including my parents, who gathered in the street to move a massive fallen oak. At school, students invited each other over for fresh showers, hot meals, and a chance to sit in the A/C.
These are my best, my favorite, memories – not because new friendships were forged, but for the opposite reason. People were kind to strangers. It didn’t matter if you’d never spoken a word to each other, or if you ever would again. There were no strings attached, no promises of future dinner parties or sleepovers or tailgates. People saw others in need, and they helped. They helped retile Spanish rooftops, they helped replace shattered windows, they helped reclaim lost pets. In times of crisis, neighbors made time and shared resources.
As we enter another hurricane season, I realize now that I have such fond memories of hurricanes because I was in Hollywood – not in New Orleans during Katrina, New York City for Sandy, Houston for Harvey, nor Puerto Rico for Maria. Moreover, my family had the means to stockpile batteries, to fill the cabinet with nonperishable items, and to drive my grandmother inland from her coastal home. My house suffered no major damage, although, even if it had, we had the means to repair it. My nostalgia then, is a kind of privilege, living as it does in the discomfort of a couple of months where hot showers were hard to come by and the movie theater wasn’t open. It lives in late-night card games with my mom and dad. It lives in the dark, dark sky when the clouds covered the stars and all the houses filled with candlelight.
This is not the case for everyone: as the nonpartisan Brookings Institute notes, hurricanes have a far greater and more detrimental impact on people living in poverty, a point the Atlantic’s Gillian B. White underscored in 2015, when she reported that, a decade after Katrina, New Orleans still had not fully recovered. “Evidence of the discrepancies is abundant,” she writes, “the number of black residents who remain displaced is significantly higher than white residents. And while some affluent neighborhoods appear fully repaired, poorer sections of the city still bear Katrina’s scars.” When severe weather hits, people with means have the ability to retreat to safer places. They have savings to account for their losses. They have insurance for floods, for hurricanes, for other disasters. People living in poverty don’t.
Puerto Rico, like New Orleans in 2005, starkly illustrates this fact. For a variety of reasons – financial crisis, an aging and overly centralized power grid, and mountainous terrain – Hurricane Maria struck the island with a uniquely devastating, and long-term, impact. Thousands of people still don’t have electricity. As Vox’s Umair Irfan notes, it’s the largest blackout in US history, and the second-largest in the world on record. This has led to a host of other problems: housing shortages, a suicide crisis, an increasing homicide rate, mass exodus, lots of illness, the closure of schools, and lack of other basic services. The recent estimate of more than 4,600 deaths would, if accurate, make Maria the second deadliest hurricane in US history.
As we advance into hurricane season, what those of us living with the threat of a hurricane can do – besides fill our own bathtubs, board our own windows, and pack our own emergency bags – is to extend that neighborly feeling to our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico, helping where we can. We must remember that though our lights have turned back on, and our basic services restored, Puerto Ricans are often still struggling in the dark, especially those outside of large city-centers. It is not easy to prepare for the new hurricane season while still recovering from the last.
In the wake of Maria, perhaps we sent off a generous care package, or several; maybe we lobbied our congressional representatives for more recovery funding; some of us possibly even volunteered. We have to keep up these efforts, especially in light of the fact that federal resources are leaving the island.
Below is a list of ways to aid Puerto Rico:
- Google launched a campaign to help Puerto Rico’s small businesses stimulate the island’s local economy.
- Foundation for Puerto Rico’s mission is to “transform Puerto Rico into a global destination by driving economic and social development through sustainable strategies.”
- The Maria Fund is an organization focused on long-term initiatives to improve the island’s “economy, the energy system, schools, agriculture, and all facets of society.”
- Write (pen letters, postcards, emails).
- Call (make it a part of your daily routine).
- Visit (1. schedule a meeting, 2. plan for your allotted time frame, 3. know your subject, 4. come prepared with specific asks, 5. follow up with a thank you email).
- The All Hands Volunteers organization offers free volunteer trainings and two bases of operations in Puerto Rico. If you have the time, the will, and the flight money, consider this organization.
- National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster is “supporting and engaging volunteers to effectively serve their communities with communication, training, deploying, experience, recognition and advancement.”
- Connect Relief “helps connect volunteers with foundations, companies and movements that are taking humanitarian aid in an organized way around Puerto Rico.”
header image: us department of agriculture / flickr