On Thursday, one year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, the Puerto Rican Student Association and International Students Union hosted an open panel between students and faculty to talk about the crisis and its ongoing consequences that plague the island to this day.
Andres Quijano ’22, who was in Puerto Rico during the hurricane and experienced the storm firsthand, recounted the first two weeks after the disaster as a “grueling experience.”
“The simple act of walking outside of my household and seeing debris everywhere was surreal. The fabric of our everyday lives suddenly stopped,” Quijano told The Sun. “My daily tasks consisted of finding appropriate food, water and [standing in] 4-6 hour lines for gas. The local government wasn’t present, so we relied on grassroots support to get by.”
Regarding the immediate responses to the natural disaster, students and panelists agreed that Puerto Rico was both unprepared for a category 4 or 5 storm and lacked proper support from the US.
Julia Pagán Andréu ’19, who is Puerto Rican, said that even though the United States sent Federal Emergency Management Agency aid to Puerto Rico, the U.S. government’s care was “limited” to that assistance. The agency could only attempt to restore Puerto Rico to its pre-hurricane state and could not address its underlying infrastructural problems, Andréu said.
“People still have tarps as roofs, and Puerto Rico still has flooding all the time. It happened before and after the hurricane. Our infrastructure is so deteriorated … my family had electricity go out every Friday,” Andréu told The Sun.
Students and faculty also discussed the local government’s issues that contributed to Maria’s high death toll, reported at 2,975 people by a study out of the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“The Puerto Rican government has gone through a process of austerity measures since the early 2000s with increased intensity since 2005. These austerity measures have generated a completely unprepared government for Hurricane Maria,” said Ivan Chaar Lopez, a Mellon Postdoctoral Associate in Latina/o studies and science and technology studies.
“When the storm came around in 2017, the state government and local government were already drained of funding, or to be more concise, the funding were allocated for certain things while others were completely defunded,” Lopez told The Sun.
In addition to the government’s lack of funding, Andréu said that people are struggling financially with American laws.
“Anything we get in the island, we have to import. Everything has to stop in mainland U.S. All the merchandise has to be transferred to a U.S. boat to go to Puerto Rico, and they have to pay taxes to come into Puerto Rico. These taxes affect prices in Puerto Rico,” he said. “For example: cars are double as expensive in Puerto Rico than the US. We’re taxed more than US citizens living in the mainland.”
Forty-four percent o Puerto Ricans live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“People are suffocating under these high prices. They were suffering before the hurricane and still [are] suffering now,” Andréu added.
Andréu, an organizer of the event, expressed that she would like these panel discussions to draw the attention of the campus.
“It’s so important for people at Cornell to care,” she said. “If we’re fostering this environment of leadership, it’s so sad that they don’t care. It’s disheartening. I would hope that people did care, [but] it’s just not as close to home to them. They didn’t live through a hurricane or have family who lived through a hurricane.”