For María Acosta Cruz, hurricanes were a part of growing up in Puerto Rico.
A storm would hit the island, power would go out for a day or two, and then life would return to normal. But on September 20, 2017, as she watched a hurricane that bore her name batter her island in a way no other had done, she realized that, for Puerto Rico, “normal” would never again feel the same.
Hurricane Maria made landfall just two weeks after Hurricane Irma decimated the U.S. Virgin Islands and pounded Puerto Rico with rain and wind that knocked out power to one million homes. Maria finished the job. The National Weather Service had issued a dire warning that it could be a “dangerous major hurricane,” but for an island used to storms, what did that mean?
“It was a game changer,” says Edgardo Rivera ’86. “Life here is completely different.” Rivera, an attorney, considers his family “very lucky,” because they are part of the 5 percent of Puerto Ricans who never lost power (their apartment building in Guaynabo, a suburb of San Juan, has a generator and a water cistern). But his father was without power and water for two months.
Rivera’s daughter Gabriela Rivera-Negron ’09, also an attorney, says the day after the storm, she left her apartment building to join her parents and found roads filled with debris and downed lines. “It was hard even to get around,” she recalls.
Back at Clark, Acosta Cruz, professor of Spanish in the Language, Literature, and Culture Department, had no way of knowing whether her elderly parents were all right.
“When the grid went down, the cell phone towers went down as well,” she says. “It took a week to get texts. Voice came a bit later — and land lines were dead for more than six months.” She heard from her father about a week after the storm; he called while she was in a class, and her students encouraged her to violate her own “no calls during class” policy.
She wasn’t the only one desperate to communicate with loved ones. Amanda Quiñones ’20, from Ponce, had to wait two weeks before she found out if her parents were OK. “Don’t get me started on how that felt,” she says. “I would be crying in the middle of class.”
Ana Mercado ’19, who lives in a suburb of San Juan, dealt with the disaster by “shutting it out,” even after she talked to her parents two days after the hurricane hit. She stopped following social media because, she says, “I didn’t want to watch my island being destroyed.”
Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States since 1898, when it was acquired as a condition of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War.
For the preceding 400 years, the island had been a Spanish colony. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship. This status gives citizens some fundamental rights, including a U.S. passport, but not others — Puerto Ricans cannot vote for president and vice president, and do not have representation in the U.S. Congress. The island became an “organized unincorporated territory” of the U.S., a commonwealth, with the ratification of its constitution in 1952.
Despite rapid industrialization in the 1950s and ’60s, which transformed its economy from an agricultural to manufacturing base, mismanagement and poor planning have resulted in a seemingly insurmountable debt crisis. The U.S. government in 2016 appointed an oversight board with control over the budget, resulting in curtailed public services, reduced worker benefits, increased taxes, and an unhappy population.
“We were dealing with a financial storm before the real tropical storm,” Edgardo Rivera says.
In the days after the hurricane, Amanda Quiñones needed to do something. She found a purpose in Students With Puerto Rico, a Facebook group connecting Puerto Rican students attending colleges across the United States. “It was our way of dealing with the questions and bringing peace to ourselves,” she says. (Read more about Clark’s Puerto Rico connection.)
Students would post if they heard from their families or friends in a certain area, and others who hadn’t heard would get an idea of what might be happening with their own families. Students With Puerto Rico created a GoFundMe account to raise money for Unidos por Puerto Rico, a public-private initiative begun by First Lady Beatriz Isabel Roselló. Each participating school needed a representative, and Quiñones stepped up for Clark. More than $50,000 was raised to buy essentials like generators, solar panels, and water.
Acosta Cruz helped her parents from afar, sending necessities like solar-powered ﬂashlights and lamps, even though it took three weeks for the U.S. Postal Service to restart deliveries on the island. She also sent solar-powered chargers for their devices, radios, and fans to combat the extreme heat — temperatures in September run in the 90s, barely cooler at night, with uncomfortable humidity.
The town of Cabo Rojo, where she grew up and her parents still live, didn’t see help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for at least two weeks after the storm hit, Acosta Cruz says. “And that’s a coastal town, which is easy to get to. The main roads were cleared in a week.” It fell to the cash-strapped municipal authorities, and the communities themselves, to do what they could.
“The first responses we saw were private citizens getting together to gather supplies and move debris,” Rivera-Negron says. “We didn’t know what was happening across the island.” When power went down, so did communications, including internet and cell service. She adds, “For a month after the hurricane, the brunt of the help we got was from communities in the States, from nonprofits and fundraisers. Those private initiatives were crucial, and well before we started seeing help from the federal government.”
Quiñones says that FEMA arrived at her house in January, while she was home for winter break more than three months after the storm. Mercado’s parents — who were without power for 113 days — were frustrated that the agency responded far more rapidly to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida.
“Texas got tons of attention, and I do not begrudge them that one bit,” Acosta Cruz says. “But don’t forget about Puerto Rico. Neglected and forgotten — that’s been the policy of this administration.”
“It was a very hard situation for the whole island,” Edgardo Rivera says. Gasoline was almost impossible to come by, and the supermarket shelves were bare. Banks and ATMs weren’t able to dispense cash. And the courts, by which Rivera makes his living, were “paralyzed” for more than 60 days.
“I had to shut down my office and lay off my employees” while the courts weren’t operating, he says. “We’re still trying to regain normalcy.
“Everything changed with Maria,” Rivera continues. “We still have traffic lights without power, and many towns in the countryside are struggling with inconsistent electricity and water. Many people are now unemployed. The future doesn’t look very good, to be honest.”
In May, the official death toll from Hurricane Maria was 112. “Maybe that’s the direct deaths from the storm — drowning, struck by ﬂying debris,” Acosta Cruz says. “It doesn’t count the effects of no electricity, like dialysis patients who died, the elderly and infirm who needed care and didn’t get it, deaths from the heat, or people who couldn’t get medication.” A Harvard study released May 29 estimates that more than 4,600 deaths can be linked to the hurricane and its aftermath.
It also doesn’t quantify the suffering and the hunger, she says. Many citizens couldn’t get food, particularly in the center of the island. FEMA provided “snack boxes” that included granola bars, chips, cookies, and canned sausages, but nothing with nutritional value, she notes.
When it came to getting needed humanitarian supplies to the island, Puerto Rico faced a huge problem at its ports. The Jones Act of 1920 states that only American-owned, -built, and-crewed ships can carry goods and passengers from one U.S. port to another. Foreign-ﬂagged ships near Puerto Rico that came from the U.S. and happened to be carrying U.S. supplies that might have helped the island weren’t allowed to dock there. The Jones Act was ultimately waived for 10 days — “a measly amount” that still kept much essential aid from reaching the island, Acosta Cruz says.
Even if more ships were able to dock, it might not have mattered. “The ports were all blocked,” Mercado says. Cargo sent to help the people wasn’t getting distributed. Workers weren’t able to get to work to off load the goods, the roads were a mess, and some goods were diverted to stores, or to government officials. “Puerto Rico is very corrupt,” she says.
More than six months after the storm, official reports stated only about 7 percent of Puerto Rican homes were without power. “My estimate is more like 20 percent,” Rivera says. Many people may technically have electricity, but the quality is questionable. Power may be coming into the house, but the wattage isn’t high enough to run a refrigerator. And blackouts still happen pretty frequently.
The power grid in Puerto Rico, Acosta Cruz says, is “old, decrepit, and useless.” A year prior to the hurricane,
the entire island lost power due to mechanical failure.
Despite the catastrophic damage from the storms, FEMA isn’t allowed to fund upgrades to the system (the Staﬀord Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act authorizes government agencies only to restore utility service to its pre-disaster condition).
When the Army Corps of Engineers finished its mission on the island May 18, almost 20,000 homes were still without power, according to Puerto Rico’s (nonvoting) representative in the U.S. Congress, Jennifer González Colón. The ongoing rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s unreliable electrical grid, including restoring fallen power lines, will now be handled by the near-bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.
“This time, everything that was wrong with the island and its political situation — its colonial relationship to the U.S. — everything went wrong,” Acosta Cruz says.
“We’re only 35 miles by 100 miles in area,” Edgardo Rivera says. “We’re not talking about a big territory here. But it is surprising and shocking how long it has taken — and keeps taking — for help to get in, and for them to do things right.”
Rivera had an extra reason for wanting things done quickly. As chair of the board of Hospital del Niño (Children’s Hospital of Puerto Rico) in San Juan, he knew that the children in the facility, many of whom are dependent on ventilators, needed the electricity. FEMA denied a request for priority help.
“While we’re called Children’s Hospital, we technically are not a hospital because we don’t do any surgery. It’s an extended care facility,” he explains.
Enter Tesla. Just a month after the storm, the company announced that Hospital del Niño would be the first of many power projects it would take on in Puerto Rico, and arrived on site to install a microgrid comprising solar panels and Powerpack batteries.
“Now the institution gets about 60 percent of its power from solar, and 40 percent from the power grid. The objective is to increase the solar supply to 90 percent,” Rivera says. Even better, Tesla is covering the costs of installation.
In January, the hospital hosted a visit from a congressional delegation including Rep. James McGovern, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Ed Markey, all of Massachusetts. “That was very important, because we were having trouble with the power company — they had to approve the system, including the fact that we were going to use solar power. There’s a lot of red tape and it usually takes more than a year.” Warren and Markey made calls that sped up the process, and approval for the combined system was granted quickly.
In her 2014 book “Dream Nation,” María Acosta Cruz examined the complicated politics, culture, and history of Puerto Rico, including its tangled relationship with the U.S. When asked about the island’s way forward, she sighs. “I really don’t know. There are all kinds of community organizations that are doing good work and that are trying to set up agriculture to make the island more self-sufficient, but these are small pockets, not large social movements.
“The one unexpected bit of news I heard is that the governor, who actually is pro-statehood, wants to organize Puerto Ricans in the states to make them significant voting blocs to inﬂuence Congress. Finally, someone has a good idea — motivate and organize Puerto Rican voters in places like Florida and Pennsylvania, and make Congress pay attention. Puerto Rico has no inﬂuence on Congress whatsoever, which is why the voters in the U.S. need to help.”
“We’re facing a very difficult situation,” Edgardo Rivera says. “It’s our responsibility. Aside from the beaches, and the good times, and the vacations, there are American citizens who live here, who struggle here, who deserve to be treated on the same level. We don’t want any special treatment. We just want to be treated equally.”
Quiñones and Mercado are unsettled about the future of their island. “I’m a realist,” say Mercado, who plans to attend law school in the United States. “My parents want to retire in the U.S. They don’t want to stress about more natural disasters, or about Puerto Rico disappearing.”
She is back at home this summer, interning with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Puerto Rico, and doesn’t rule out one day working within the Puerto Rican government to help her island. Quiñones is spending the summer working at the House of Representatives office in Ponce. She’s also planning a law career, perhaps in Puerto Rico. “I’ve always said that I want to go back to stay when I have something to give to the island,” she says.
In the meantime, the Clark students and their families watch the skies. Hurricane season started on June 1.