Vieques and the Hurricane: Legacy Means Responsibility

Jorge Colón and Gary Machlis

In 1941, the US government expropriated two thirds of the land area of Vieques, a small island with a population of several thousand American citizens eight miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. The land was for use as a military camp and as a target for air and naval bombing practice. Over the course of the next six decades, approximately 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped on a populated American island somewhat larger than Manhattan. The impacts of the bombing were significant — flattened mountaintops, cratered beaches, compromised health of residents, and more. After a protracted struggle to end the bombing, local Viequenses along with mainland Puerto Ricans and others forced the Navy to end the practice and in 2003 depart from the island. The former military camp and target impact zone became a federal wildlife refuge.

The people of Vieques have sacrificed much for American national security interests and military preparedness. This legacy creates a special responsibility for the US government in response to the recent disasters on Vieques.

Hurricane Maria brought catastrophic damage to all of the Puerto Rico archipelago, but hit Vieques particularly hard. Maria crossed over Vieques with Category 5 winds as it headed to the Puerto Rico mainland. The loss of electrical power, water, and infrastructure combined with its relative isolation make emergency response and recovery both difficult and vital.

Vieques, like the main island of Puerto Rico, has a long list of immediate, mid-term, and long-term needs. As the emergency response is underway, there is a basic list of humanitarian relief items: bottled water, insect repellent, powdered milk, batteries, baby formula, diapers, medicine, food, fuel, and more. Medical help and provisional shelter remain vital and urgent. Improved communication (one lesson from Hurricane Maria — every community needs a stockpile of satellite phones) is also essential. Donations directed at Vieques emergency relief can be made at:

As emergency response shifts into mid-term recovery, the needs become even more substantial, and the difficulties of Vieques being an island off the island of Puerto Rico are heightened. Rebuilding the electrical power grid — with an eye to improving its resilience against future storms is a first step, to be immediately followed by restoring a dependable water supply. The equipment and personnel to do the rebuilding must be ferried from the main island. Restarting the tourism industry is critical, for it provides local jobs and injects much needed cash into the small island economy. The large federal wildlife refuge and its beaches should be opened as soon as recovery allows, and commercial flights and ferry service quickly restored.

Long-term, Vieques, like other small islands in the Caribbean, must re-think how they can prepare to withstand future major disasters; climate change, sea level rise, and the increased volatility of storms may make storms like Maria a repeated event. Restoration efforts should include construction of affordable hurricane-resistant housing, suitable medical facilities, hardened communication systems, and swift land and underwater cleanup and decontamination from the unexploded ordnance still left behind by the US military. It is crucial that local Viequenses be full participants in the rebuilding process — not as victims but as resilient rebuilders of their own island.

All of Puerto Rico has extraordinary needs in the face of this disaster; the humanitarian crisis is commonwealth-wide. We do not suggest Vieques be prioritized above other Puerto Rican communities. Yet, the legacy of the island’s sacrifice as a bombing target creates a special responsibility for the US government: Vieques cannot be forgotten.

Jorge Colón is professor of chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico and lives in San Juan. Gary Machlis is university professor of environmental sustainability at Clemson University, and lives part-time on Vieques.

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