September 19, 2018

GUEST ROOM | One Year Later: A Reflection on Hurricane Maria

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Today marks one year since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. Maria immediately thrusted Puerto Rico into darkness as the electrical grid was devastated, cellular communication was rendered impossible and basic necessities such as food and water became scarce. Maria exacerbated the ongoing economic depression, with the poverty rate increasing to 52 percent (at least 3 times higher than the national average).

Since then, the Trump Administration has displayed a blatant disregard for the needs of Puerto Ricans. For example, Trump praised how Hurricane Maria was not a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina, refused to extend Puerto Rico’s Jones Act waiver beyond ten days. This refusal prevented Puerto Rico from receiving aid and critical supplies from neighboring nations more quickly and cheaply. FEMA also admitted to erroneously leaving 10 million bottles of water to spoil on a tarmac in Ceiba, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin limited Puerto Rico’s access to federal disaster loans allocated by Congress solely for Puerto Rico. He also refused to say that the Treasury would forgive Puerto Rico’s disaster loans , even though 90-95 percent of such loans are forgiven. Neither should we forget Trump throwing paper towels to hurricane survivors as if he were playing basketball, or his egocentric declaration that the death toll was merely a fabrication designed to tarnish him politically.

The Republican-controlled Congress followed suit in the year after Maria. In line with its historic neglect and abuse of Puerto Rico, Congress passed a tax bill just under two months after Maria, treating Puerto Rico as a foreign jurisdiction thus subjecting corporations therein to a 12.5 percent tax on profits from intellectual property. All this despite Puerto Rico’s request for an exemption.  Such a tax burdens the manufacturing industry, in Puerto Rico, which makes up just under 50 percent of the island’s gross domestic product. History shows us this tax bill will jeopardize the jobs of thousands of Puerto Ricans employed by pharmaceutical companies. For example, after Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code was revoked for corporations operating in Puerto Rico — thus placing a financial burden on companies seeking to continue to operate in Puerto Rico — many simply moved out of the island, costing the economy 80,000 jobs. With respect to Medicaid, Republicans demonstrated a similar hostility to the needs of Puerto Rico’s healthcare system before and after Maria. For instance, Congress has refused to equally fund Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program, which around half the population relies on and which Puerto Rico pays into fully. This occurs while the federal government has forced Puerto Rico, through a fiscal oversight control board, to cut nearly $1 billion from its Medicaid program. This likely means that close to one million people on the island will lose access to healthcare.

Only a year after Hurricane Maria, the consequences of such hostile and discriminatory measures against Puerto Rico are all too clear. George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health found that there were 2,975 excess deaths in Puerto Rico following Maria, and specifically found that the rate of death among low-income and elderly communities were nearly 50 percent higher than normal. Bread for the World Institute believes that food insecurity in Puerto Rico increased from 50 percent of households to 80 percent in the aftermath of Maria. A lack of resources for health services and a lack of access to basic necessities has led to a sustained increased in the island’s suicide rate.  A study conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health estimated that the primary cause of higher mortality rates following the hurricane was “interruption of medical care,” allowing us to make sense of the high rate of death among low-income and elderly persons.

Today and going forward, we must remember and honor the 2,975 people who died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and the people of Puerto Rico who today continue to live with the effects of Maria and American colonialism. We must remember that thousands of deaths were not inevitable, but instead were the consequences of discriminatory treatment and policies. Puerto Rico has been subject to discriminatory policies time and time again that have made food, water, healthcare, security and life itself a luxury that thousands of Puerto Ricans are denied. We must remember the lives cut short as those of us who can vote in the November elections do so. We must also remember  that Puerto Ricans themselves cannot vote. We must remember the lives cut short as we mobilize to act and support Puerto Rico in whatever way we can. In this way, we can work together to build up a more just and equitable world. As Puerto Ricans before me have said, and Puerto Ricans after me will say: Puerto Rico deserves better. We must do better.

Chris Arce is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Guest Room  runs periodically. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com.