As Hurricane Irma pushes past Florida and across the eastern seaboard, relief organizations are rushing to the aid of submerged coastal cities, rescuing the stranded and housing the newly homeless. But what has the government been doing to resolve damage done to U.S. Caribbean territories, hit this past Wednesday? What coverage have they received?
One of the strongest storms in history, Hurricane Irma, now classified as a tropical depression, took a truly devastating toll on the Caribbean islands and the Southeastern United States. As reported by the New York Times, the storm broke records for wind speeds, strength and duration, and has been the only Atlantic hurricane to-date to be classified as Category 5 for three consecutive days. In each of these ways, Irma has surpassed Hurricanes Harvey, Andrew and Katrina and is now considered one of the strongest storms in history.
The focus of relief organizations has rightly been on the hardest-hit regions, including the submerged Florida Keys. The hurricane has left 4.7 million Floridians still without power and a dozen dead. But in comparison to relief efforts on the mainland, little has been done to address damage done to the U.S. Virgin Islands, left all but flattened, its citizens starving. As reported by the New York Times, residents of St. Thomas have been vocalizing their discontent over the lack of news coverage and the United States’ minimal disaster relief efforts for the islands. One resident puts it simply: “The government is treating us terrible,” said Ureen Smith, 55, who lived next door to a home in which one of the island’s deaths was tallied. And a similar story unfolds in Puerto Rico.
While the storm skirted past the island, avoiding a direct hit, its formidable winds caused the White House to issue a state of emergency following a request by Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló. Three were killed, thousands made homeless and more than one million left without electricity, plunging nearly a third of its people into darkness. The country, entrenched in a decade-long economic crisis, has already long been struggling with crumbling infrastructure, and though power has now started to return to its citizens, a new disaster may well be on its way.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) filed for bankruptcy in June of this year with a debt load of $9 billion. The post-Irma energy disaster has now allowed room for privatizing utility companies to offer large sums to underfunded municipalities like PREPA itself. As a contributor to Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, the United States has a responsibility to lessen the likelihood of energy privatization at a crucial moment as this one. However, it has offered few federal solutions aside from PROMESA, a rescue law created in 2016, which has done little to promise a more secure financial future for the island. President Donald Trump has been vocal about the issue only in its relation to Obamacare, tweeting on April 26 this year, “Democrats are trying to bail out insurance companies from disastrous #ObamaCare, and Puerto Rico with your tax dollars. Sad!” and has been silent on the matter since, even after the recent disaster, conveying either a lack of attention or a lack of care for his fellow citizens.
As popular attention drifts to the mainland, the U.S. government must not neglect the waves off the coast. Disaster relief should involve not only rebuilding collapsed homes and securing people’s physical safety but also long-term protective measures that ensure efficient responses to those disasters when they inevitably arrive.
Within our heightened national awareness, both political and environmental, it is crucial to inquire about how the nation’s most vulnerable have been and continue to be affected by these disasters. In times of crisis such as this, to whom does the nation reach out first? What relief is actualized? The nation waits for the White House to offer their answers to these vital questions. And though power slowly returns to Puerto Rico and its neighboring islands, they continue to wait in the dark.