Photography by Dennis Manuel Rivera. Accessed from the National Geographic

A Puerto Rican on the mainland: What you can learn from a disaster (when you are lucky not to actually be in one)

At this very moment, my family is wearing raincoats inside their house trying to keep the water out because Hurricane María blew their roof away. Thankfully everyone is ok and trying to make the best of it. Off the island the Puerto Rican diaspora is in a state of helplessness, waiting to hear from their family and figuring out how they can help from a distance. As I write, I have the Weather Channel, CNN, WapaTV, Facebook, Twitter, and What’sApp open all at the same time­­ — trying to gain as much information as possible. Trying to connect people. Trying to provide crucial information to whomever I can get connected with, even if only for a fleeting minute. The Internet and social media have allowed me to play a small role in coping with this disaster. Most of all, they have given me a window to observe what is happening in Puerto Rico post-María from a distance. While the disaster in Puerto Rico may seem like a weird, one-of-a-kind situation (two ‘unprecedented’ storms back to back!), climate scientists are warning us that this is the new normal. We should now expect that these freak events will happen more often. And so we should learn and prepare for them.

Information flow during times of crisis

For instance, the importance of information flows and having a resilient communication infrastructure is not to be underestimated. Puerto Rico has, by all accounts, a modern network of cellular towers and Internet. Yet, in some areas the battery backup is not working or there are glitches in the cellular services that do not allow calls to come in or out of our area code. To make matters worse, only one radio station is broadcasting on the island, and there’s no TV, cell phones, police radios, etc. People in Puerto Rico are isolated and they’re not receiving critical knowledge they need to survive. When I’ve been able to briefly connect with family members, I found that they did not know some basic emergency management information, such as that Governor Rosselló had put a curfew in place. They tell me they know how to deal with not having electric power, as they’ve done many times before, but not having the power of knowledge is a game changer.

Photo taken by Alvin Baez. Accessed from The Atlantic.

Our connected vulnerability

Another lesson I gained is how little awareness we have of our own vulnerability. We are used to thinking about our vulnerability to hurricanes in relation to where we live. Do I live in a flood-prone area? Is it susceptible to mudslides? This extreme event, however, exposed how our vulnerability is so tightly connected to what happens in other places. Prior to María, for instance, Harvey and Irma paid a visit to Puerto Rico’s key trade ports: Houston and cities in Florida. Many of the supplies, food, and fuel that we needed to survive disasters were tied to the impacts of hurricanes in those ports. This would not be such an issue if it weren’t, in part, for the Jones Act. The Jones Act is an archaic policy that mandates that only US vessels may transport goods within the mainland. This means that boats from other countries need to go first to a port in Florida, Louisiana, or Texas to change vessels, before the goods can be shipped to Puerto Rico. As we speak, the Weather Channel is reporting that our nearby islands of Jamaica and Dominican Republic are standing by with shipments of supplies and food ready to go to Puerto Rico, but they can’t get in without first going to Florida. In order to be resilient in this new climate reality, we need a better sense of all kinds of vulnerabilities: social, political, technological, and even ecological.

Compounding effects

The rapid succession of the hurricanes is, I think, what surprised us all. We were fortunate not have felt the full force of Irma as Florida did, but we were still greatly affected because of compounding effects. It’s true that experiencing Irma had the benefit of activating the municipal, state, and federal emergency infrastructure well in time to then cope with María. In other areas, however, we became even more vulnerable. Many families were still without power and water when María hit because the electric infrastructure could not rebound quickly enough. Now, 100% of the population is without power and it is expected that this will be the case for months. Residents have also reported that they underestimated the magnitude of María’s danger and did not take shelter (even when they lived in flooding zones) because they thought they could weather this storm as they did with Irma. Clearly there was a breakdown in how these compounding risks were communicated to the general public.

Solidarity in our communities and our institutions

Finally, one thing I know I will definitely observe in the days to come is the immense solidarity and compassion that Puerto Ricans exhibit during times of disaster. I witnessed it first hand during Hurricane Hugo, and I saw it just a few days ago when Puerto Rico became the platform of Hurricane Irma relief efforts led by local groups (the Puerto Rico Navy is a great example) to help our sister Caribbean islands. I know when I have my chance to go to Puerto Rico I’ll see neighbors, communities, municipality personnel, emergency managers, and many others, coming together to assess the impacts, invent ways to effectively clean up, and learn from each other’s experiences and knowledge. These moments are wonderful, but they are short-lived. They are also what some have called windows of opportunity to re-imagine how we could do things differently to better prepare, respond, and transform. How can we make these windows stay open long enough to allow ideas of resilience and sustainability to emerge in the social collective? Even more so, how can we mimic these moments and re-organize the institutions in our cities so that we can learn and anticipate ways we need to build resilience before then next big freak event happens?

I’d like to think that I will not see something like María again in another 20 years, but unfortunately I know that is not the case. In fact, I’m scared to look at the TV in case the Weather Channel announces yet another freak event on its way. Maybe I’m being too extreme here, but at the very least we need to be ready to anticipate what could happen in the next hurricane season. And when we do see two possible pathways, we can either do the same thing we always do — re-build back to the way things were — or we can choose to re-imagine and re-invent the way we build for a new climate reality for Puerto Rico. I’d like to take the different path this time…