Don't Neglect This American Disaster
September 30th, 2017
Last week, Puerto Rico was devastated by the latest in a string of crushing hurricanes that have hit the U.S. this season. Hurricane Maria made direct landfall on the island, carrying winds of 155 miles per hour and wiping out the entire power grid. Now, ten days later, Puerto Rico’s residents are overwhelmingly without shelter, access to telecommunication, or clean water (and even food, in many cases). This has caused recent concern that the combination of hot conditions and standing, non-potable water could cause a resurgence in cholera.
So: decimated infrastructure, widespread power outages, lack of external communication, and the possibility of a fatal outbreak of disease. These are the conditions that the 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico face. And let’s put this out there right away: Puerto Rico is part of the United States. Citizens of Puerto Rico are American citizens.
Earlier in September, Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas, causing immense flooding. A week later, Hurricane Irma spiraled through the Caribbean - and also made landfall in Puerto Rico - before reeling into Florida. Both storms harshly impacted the U.S. mainland, and, aptly, the federal government responded by sending immediate aid. There is no underestimating the devastating impact of both hurricanes, and, surely, the quantity of media coverage that both storms received was entirely appropriate.
But what about Hurricane Maria? It took President Trump five days from Maria’s landfall on Puerto Rico to make a decisive statement regarding the hurricane. In a series of tweets, he praised his own administration’s efforts to bring relief to Puerto Rico, but bizarrely focused his attention on the island’s flaws unrelated to the hurricane. He lamented their “broken infrastructure” and “massive debt” which he seemed to blame for Puerto Rico’s devastation. While Trump was playing the blame game with Mother Nature and NFL fans, he had yet to send aid to the island. Nor had Congress moved to pass legislation for aid. Remember: cholera; power outages; leveled buildings; no clean water.
At the same time, news outlets that covered Hurricanes Irma and Harvey thoroughly, seemed to have neglected Maria. An article on Fivethirtyeight mentioned that last Sunday, the phrase “national anthem” was mentioned more times on TV news than the phrases “Puerto Rico” and “Hurricane Maria” put together. Charts from MediaCloud, reported in the same article, showed a dramatic discrepancy in online and cable coverage of Maria compared to Harvey and Irma.
Finally, at a far more local level - in my own school, Hunter - I have noticed little effort to organize and donate to relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
So how did this hurricane not garner sufficient media attention, nor be deemed important enough to merit federal aid? It’s a complex question. We can’t just blame it on the eclipsing flurry of attention surrounding peaceful protest on the football field.
Although Puerto Rico is an official territory of the United States, to many Americans, the island feels far more foreign than domestic. There’s no denying the multitude of differences between most of the mainland United States, and Puerto Rico. First of all, although Puerto Rico is part of the United States, it’s paradoxically not one of the 50 states. Citizens of Puerto Rico do not have voting power in Congress, nor can they vote in general presidential elections. This strange limbo of status is due to the remnants of Spanish Colonialism: essentially, the US won Puerto Rico in a war against Spain, acquiring the island and its inhabitants as a territory, but not a state.
Thus, too few mainland Americans even know that Puerto Rico is part of the US - only 52% of a Morning Consult poll of 2,200 adults (reported by the New York Times). This misconception ties tightly to the lack of aid and interest in grassroots aid nationally. In the same poll, of the people who recognized Puerto Rico’s status, about eight in ten supported aid for Maria, while only four in ten supported aid who did not know the island’s status.
But what about the other two in ten? Wouldn’t you assume that nearly all citizens of a certain country would support aid to another part of this country? But there’s another difference between Texas/Florida and Puerto Rico, one that would have a great impact on people’s responses to Harvey and Irma versus Maria. The experiences of mainland Americans and Puerto Ricans are often very different, separated by language, culture, and geography. And these differences play a fair role in people’s interest in aid.
It’s easiest for people to empathize with people just like them. When a family member is hurt, or a schoolmate, we generally share an initial reaction of concern and desire to help. It’s the same at a larger scale, too - there’s a human reflex of concern that’s triggered when one of our tribe is in trouble. Those ideas of fellowship, brotherhood, and comradeship are all incredibly important to the way we think about generosity.
But ultimately, whether or not the President personally feels a comradeship with his constituents in that “very small island” surrounded by a “big ocean,” it’s his responsibility to act quickly and resolutely to come to the aid of the people he serves.
And we, New York City high school students, should feel this very same reflex to help for the people of Puerto Rico. First off, we share a nation. That’s tribe enough. But another thing to keep in mind is that although some high schools (mine, Hunter, is a prime example) do not reflect the demographics of the city in their student populations, the connections between NYC and Puerto Rico are immense. New York has the greatest population of Puerto Rican citizens of any city in the U.S.. Hunter students - and any other students who may not feel as if they are connected to Puerto Rico (you don’t speak Spanish, you don’t have family on the island, you’ve never been there) - recognize that your city is connected to the island.
And therefore, you’re connected too. In terms of the attention and personal aid that we, as citizens, give to Puerto Rico, we shouldn’t let these linguistic and cultural barriers get in the way of wanting to help these people in immense need. After all, shared nation or not, shared tribe and city or not, shared culture or not, we do have one thing in common - we’re all humans. And that shared community should be enough to trigger our desire to help in any way we can.